Outgoing White House communications director Sean Spicer has admitted meeting with a Republican donor who shopped a conspiracy-soaked story about a dead staffer at the Democratic National Committee, despite telling reporters that he was unaware of the story when Fox News ran several segments about it.
In a lawsuit first reported by NPR’s David Folkenflik, Fox contributor and private investigator Rod Wheeler described his work with Republican donor Ed Butowsky to attempt to prove an explosive claim that has since been debunked — that Seth Rich, an DNC IT staffer who was killed in Washington, D.C., last year, had been the source of internal emails later published by WikiLeaks. Rich’s killing remains unsolved.
On April 20, Wheeler and Butowsky got a meeting with Spicer and handed over Wheeler’s notes on the Rich story, according to the lawsuit filed by Wheeler, which alleges that he was not promoted as a contributor in part due to his race.
“Mr. Spicer was provided with a copy of Mr. Wheeler’s investigative narrative and asked Butowsky and Mr. Wheeler to keep him abreast of any developments in the case,” Wheeler’s attorneys write in the lawsuit. “Upon information and belief, Butowsky did just that.”
Spicer confirmed the meeting in an interview with Folkenflik, saying that Butowsky and Wheeler had informed him of an investigative story that Fox News was working on. “It had nothing to do with advancing the president’s domestic agenda — and there was no agenda,” Spicer says now. “They were just informing me of the [Fox] story.”
But less than one month later, in a May 16 press gaggle, Spicer claimed to have no knowledge of the Rich story. At the time, D.C. affiliate Fox 5 had run a credulous interview with Wheeler, which kicked off further coverage in conservative media and on Fox News itself. Malia Zimmerman, a California-based investigative reporter, filed a story for the Fox News website which alleged that FBI sources were ready to link Rich to WikiLeaks.
“Sean, can we get a White House reaction or the President’s reaction to the report that said Rich was emailing WikiLeaks before his murder?” asked a reporter, according to the White House’s transcript.
“I don’t — I’m not aware of — generally, I don’t get updates on DNC — former DNC staffers,” said Spicer. “I’m not aware of that.”
“It would certainly have a great influence on where the leaks came from, if they could potentially — I mean, there’s a lot of implications in this story, of course,” the reporter continued.
“I understand that,” said Spicer. “But for me to comment from here about an ongoing investigation — I believe it’s still ongoing; I don’t even know the status of it in terms of D.C. — but it would be highly inappropriate to do that.”
Fox News retracted the story on May 23. In a statement, the network said that “the retraction of this story is still being investigated internally,” and challenged Wheeler’s claim that Zimmerman had misrepresented him in order to corroborate her own story.
“The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous,” Additionally, Fox News vehemently denies the race discrimination claims in the lawsuit — the dispute between Zimmerman and Rod Wheeler has nothing to do with race.”
In an emailed statement to The Washington Post, Spicer described the meeting as brief, but did not explain the discrepancy in his public statements.
“Ed is a longtime supporter of the president’s agenda who often appears in the media,” said Spicer. “He asked for a 10 minute meeting, with no specified topic, to catch up and said he would be bringing along a contributor to Fox News. As Ed himself has noted, he has never met the President and the White House had nothing to do with his story.”
In a statement made through its representative, Brad Bauman, Rich’s family suggested that the revelations about how the story was sold might put some conspiracy theories to rest.
“While we can’t speak to the evidence that you now have, we are hopeful that this brings an end to what has been the most emotionally difficult time in our lives and an end to conspiracy theories surrounding our beloved Seth,” they said.
And in a separate statement, DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa placed blame for the story on the Trump administration.
“If these allegations are true, it is beyond vile that the White House — and possibly even Trump himself — would use the murder of a young man to distract the public’s attention from their chaotic administration and Trump’s ties to Russia.” said Hinojosa. “The Rich family has begged those responsible for these conspiracies to stop. And yet, Trump’s allies have ignored their pain and their pleas, degrading the office of the president by spreading repulsive lies. This should outrage any decent human being. There is no excuse for the suffering that Trump’s associates and their conspirators at FOX have caused the Rich family and those closest to him. Both parties should denounce these sick and twisted tactics.”
But at Tuesday’s White House briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dissembled about the meeting, saying that the president “had no knowledge of the story” despite Butowsky’s claim that he kept Trump in the loop. (Butowsky told NPR that he had been joking.)
“It doesn’t bother me that the press secretary would take a meeting with someone involved in the media about a story,” said Sanders.
Butowsky, who did not answer requests for comment on Tuesday, is not a member of the media. He has semi-frequently appeared in conservative media as a financial pundit; in a 2015 interview with Breitbart News, conducted by now-White House adviser Steve Bannon, he warned that the Obama administration’s economic policies could bring about stagflation.
The Dallas money manager has contributed less than $14,000 to federal candidates since 2008, including $1,000 to Barack Obama’s first White House campaign, according to FEC filings. In the 2016 presidential race, he gave $2,700 to Carly Fiorina and $2,500 to Chris Christie – but never contributed any money to Trump’s campaign or the RNC, filings show.
But this year, over the period discussed in Wheeler’s lawsuit, Butowsky presented himself on social media, and to reporters, as an insider with valuable information to share. He posted photos of himself at Trump’s inauguration and inside the White House press briefing room on Instagram, while at the same time scheduling meetings to advance the Seth Rich story. In addition to his lawsuit, Wheeler has released audio and text messages of Butowksy’s advocacy, which reveal the donor repeatedly saying that he was on the cusp of a breakthrough.
“We have the full attention of the White House on this,” Butowsky told Wheeler in one message, shortly before the meeting with Spicer.
Matea Gold contributed reporting.