The Fox News Channel and a wealthy supporter of President Trump worked in concert under the watchful eye of the White House to concoct a story about the death of a young Democratic National Committee staffer, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A new lawsuit alleges that the Fox News Channel and a wealthy Trump supporter concocted a story about the murder of a young Democratic staffer. Twenty-seven-year-old Seth Rich was gunned down last year in Washington, D.C. A former D.C. homicide detective brought this suit. He says Fox News pressured him to falsely claim that Seth Rich had contact with WikiLeaks and that his death was connected to leaked emails from Democratic Party leaders. NPR's David Folkenflik broke the story of this lawsuit and joins us with the latest. Hi, David.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Ari.
SHAPIRO: This is a very explosive claim. The suit alleges that President Trump himself may have been aware of this now-discredited Fox News story, that it may have been an effort to distract from the Russia story. Walk us through this.
FOLKENFLIK: It's a little convoluted, but let's give it a shot. Ed Butowsky is a wealthy Dallas investor and a vocal backer of the president. In February, he announced he wanted to help the Rich family solve the - resolve the question of who had murdered their son. And he announced he would pay for private investigator. Whom he arranged was Rod Wheeler.
Now, Wheeler's a - as it happens, a paid commentator on Fox News, Butowsky frequently an unpaid one. He said to the Riches, here's who you can have. What Rod Wheeler, the investigator and former homicide detective in D.C., is alleging is that Butowsky all along had an agenda, and that was to prove this link between Seth Rich, who had worked at the DNC and these leaks to WikiLeaks.
Butowsky also in a number of ways - I mean this is a lawsuit. It's one side of the story. But in a number of ways that are documented, he had called upon and invoked the influence he had at the White House and the interest that the White House had, and indeed he orchestrated a meeting in - on April 20 with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Wheeler and himself to talk about the case. And subsequently, as you say, he told Wheeler that the president knew about the story in draft form, was interested and wanted to get it on the air that it was time to go. This was a message given not once but several times.
SHAPIRO: Now, you spoke today with Seth Rich's parents. Just a couple of months ago, they wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post begging for the story about their son to be dropped, that his death not be politicized. What did they tell you today?
FOLKENFLIK: It was a very searing conversation, rending at times, moving at others - a couple that seems to at every point try to stress the positive ways in which they can move forward from this tragedy. They hope that this lawsuit and the renewed coverage will give an opportunity for people to turn away from conspiracy theories that they think have poisoned so much of the discourse about their son's life and his death.
But it's also a reminder that news that is fabricated, news that is fake, news that is false, as this story was, even by Fox's account, which retracted the story - it's not just a joke. It's not just sport. It's not just political advantage. But it plays with people's lives. And they said the day that the Fox News story came out on May 16 of this year that linked falsely their son to the DNC links was just as damaging as the day that he died.
SHAPIRO: And tell us about how the White House responded today.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, today we heard from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I believe we have a cut of what she had to say in essentially trying to dismiss the White House's involvement in this whole thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president didn't have knowledge of this story. The White House didn't have any involvement in the story. And beyond that, it's ongoing litigation that doesn't involve anybody in the building. And so I'd refer you to the parties that it does.
FOLKENFLIK: So that's an instance where they're saying, you know, don't count us into this. It's not very clear whether Trump knew or not knew. And in most presidencies, you'd say, there is no way that a Dallas investor, however vocal, is slipping somehow a draft of a Fox News piece to the president of the United States and the Oval Office desk before it gets to air.
The difference about this White House of course is Donald Trump is his own communications director. And the difference about this White House is it's obsessed with media. But let's be clear. It's not proven. We don't know exactly what level of monitoring there was.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's David Folkenflik. Thanks very much.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
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