By Shaun Mullen / 08.02.2017
What if the White House could assist Fox News — The Donald’s favorite go-to source in the right-wing media firmament — in fabricating some particularly insidious fake news in order to push back against increasingly serious Russia scandal allegations? Given the opportunity, it leaped at it.
The White House — and perhaps President Trump himself — provided a willing hand to Fox News and a millionaire Trump sycophant to push a fabricated story about the murder of Democratic National Committee data specialist Seth Rich in a brazen attempt to “lift the cloud” of the Russia scandal by discrediting the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia hacked the DNC and stole emails published by WikiLeaks.
That is the stunning conclusion of a defamation lawsuit filed on Tuesday, first reported by David Folkenflik at National Public Radio, that would seem to be preposterous on its face had Trump and his administration not engaged in so many other efforts to discredit the scandal and undermine investigators, including using media that is slavishly supportive of Trump to push dubious or false stories beneficial to the president.
In fact, fake conspiracies have been effective weapons for Trump in trying to hide real conspiracies. Consider his false claim that Barack Obama personally ordered the phones at Trump Tower be tapped.
“The landscape has basically been saturated with fairy tales, conspiracies and deliberate disinformation,” Media Matters president Angelo Carusone tells Salon‘s Amanda Marcotte. “When you have a large portion of the news cycle being consumed by a conversation around conspiracies, that people get fatigued.”
This has conveniently played into Trump’s hands as polls consistently show people are confused by and have become tired of the Russia scandal.
The main players in the Rich lawsuit drama are plaintiff Rod Wheeler, a private investigator, Fox News contributor and former Washington, D.C. homicide detective hired by Rich’s family to investigate the murder, and defendants Fox News Channel, Fox reporter Malia Zimmerman and Ed Butowsky, a pro-Trump Republican donor and frequent Fox News and Fox Business contributor who is accused by Wheeler of creating a fake news story that Rich and not Russia provided WikiLeaks with the DNC emails.
Rich, 27, was shot to death on July 10, 2016 about a block from his apartment in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Northwest Washington in what D.C. police describe as an unsolved attempted armed robbery. WikiLeaks released a trove of stolen DNC emails 12 days later.
The right-wing noise machine was riding the Rich story hard before his body was cold, accusing Hillary Clinton of his assassination with a fervor previously reserved for the Hillary Murdered Vince Foster evergreen. Fake news maestro Alex Jones of InfoWars and former House speaker Newt Gingrich harped on the story, and it became a personal cause for Fox‘s Sean Hannity.
Lest this seem like just another episode in a long-running soap opera, readers are reminded that it has been quite okay in the twisted minds of right-wingers and other Trump acolytes for Russia to attack the very foundation of American democracy by cyber-sabotaging a presidential election because it was a grand opportunity to further work their long-running mischief against the Clintons.
Zimmerman’s explosive Fox News report — a conspiracy theory with no corroborating evidence — was based on an interview with Wheeler, who Butowsky introduced to the Rich family. U.S. intelligence agencies dismiss the Rich-WikiLeaks link and say their own evidence suggests that the DNC computer network was hacked over a long period of time by two different Russian government agencies, and that the cyber intrusions began as early as 2015.
WikiLeakers founder and latter day right-wing stooge Julian Assange cryptically suggested later in the summer of 2016 that the Rich murder may have been linked to the email thefts, while Zimmerman said in her story that Democrats might have been connected to the murder and a cover-up had thwarted the official investigation.
“We have the full attention of the White House on this,” Butowsky told Wheeler in a text message quoted in the suit.
Butowsky later texted Wheeler to ask him to join an April 20, 2017 meeting with then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer to “keep him abreast” of the investigation. Butowsky told Wheeler that Trump had read Zimmerman’s article and wanted it published.
Spicer has acknowledged the meeting, although when asked about the Fox Newsstory in May at a press briefing he said he was unaware of it.
Spicer and Butowsky deny that the president was involved, although the suit says Butowsky sent Wheeler another text message stating, “Not to add to the pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you.”
Butowski now says he was just joking, the excuse Trump reliably uses when he gets caught out, most recently when he advocated the use of violence in a speech to police officers.
Zimmerman’s story was published in Washington by a Fox News affiliate on May 15 and, described as a “bombshell” by the network, went up on its national foxnews.comwebsite on May 16 and then was aired on “Fox & Friends,” the president’s favorite news show. The story included quotes from Wheeler about an FBI source corroborating the Rich-WikiLeaks claim that Wheeler states in the suit he never gave Zimmerman.
Wheeler does not come off as the most trustworthy of people. In 2007, he retracted a segment on Fox News‘s “The O’Reilly Factor” in which he claimed violent lesbian gangs armed with Glocks were “performing sex acts” nationwide. (Really.)
But everyone except poor Seth Rich is covered in slim on this one, and there is no question of the damage the Fox News story — as well as a fake news story linking her to a pedophile ring at a Washington pizzeria — did to an already beleaguered Clinton campaign. Wheeler’s lawyer says that he “has suffered irreparable damage to his reputation and his career will likely never recover,” while Butowsky , Zimmerman and Fox News deny the allegation.
Fox News retracted the story on May 23, saying it had been published prematurely.
Not to get all graphic, but I laughed until coffee ran out my nose the other morning as I read accounts from a swooning Washington press corps about how the Mooch was history and Trump’s new chief of staff, General John Kelly, was going to impose military-style order on the Wild West West Wing. Goodfellas was out and Patton was in.
The man who handles everything now has a handler, as one pundit put it.
By my rough calculations, the ascendancy of the former Marine is about the 10th “pivot”, “reboot,” “turning point” or “brand new day” in the mere six months since Trump descended deus ex machina from his Fifth Avenue penthouse to Make America Great Again. Less than 24 hours after Kelly’s appointment, he already was being undercut as suggestions were made that the president’s daughter Ivanka, unlike the rest of the West Wing staff, will not be reporting to him.
Then again, the handler-in-chief also had told Kelly’s predecessor, Reince Priebus, that he would be totally in charge.
And while the appeal of a manly, granite-jawed and ramrod straight military man moistened the panties of CNN‘s Gloria Borger, among others, there’s only one general Trump has ever liked getting advice from.
That’s Michael Flynn, and we know how that worked out.