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A lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that White House officials including President Donald Trump knew about a since-retracted Fox News story about a Democratic National Committee staffer's death before it was published.
The suit against Fox, filed by Rod Wheeler, a contributor for the news network, alleges that wealthy Trump backer Ed Butowsky and Fox aimed to use the story about Seth Rich to deflect attention from the probe into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin.
Wheeler accuses Fox reporter Malia Zimmerman, "with the knowledge and support of Butowsky," of making up two quotes from him suggesting he knew of evidence that Rich may have coordinated with Wikileaks on sharing Democratic Party emails last year.
The lawsuit, obtained by CNBC, cites a purported text from Butowsky to Wheeler shortly before the story's publishing and airing that suggests Trump saw the article and supported Fox writing it. The text reads: "Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It's now all up to you. But don't feel the pressure."
Fox published the Rich story on May 16 and retracted it a week later, saying it was "not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all of our reporting." Prominent Fox host Sean Hannity had pushed the debunked theory about the 27-year-old Rich's 2016 murder even over the protests of his family. Rich was shot and killed in Washington in what is believed to have been a botched robbery that remains unsolved.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday said Trump "had no knowledge" of the story. She called the implication that White House officials were involved "completely untrue."
"The accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman's story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous. The retraction of this story is still being investigated internally and we have no evidence that Rod Wheeler was misquoted by Zimmerman. 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," Fox's president of news, Jay Wallace, said in a statement.
Wheeler, who is black and has been a Fox contributor since 2005, is also suing Fox for racial discrimination. He said similar law enforcement experts who are white received higher pay and more opportunities.
Butowsky did not immediately comment to CNBC for this article.
The theory about Rich's role as the source of the leaked DNC emails became a popular right-wing conspiracy even before Fox published the story. Those emails shook up the 2016 presidential race when released by Wikileaks last year. U.S. intelligence officials have said hackers linked to the Russian government breached the DNC, according to multiple reports. Wikileaks' Julian Assange has denied getting the emails from the Russian government. Russia has denied trying to influence the election.
The lawsuit accuses Butowsky and Fox's Zimmerman of aiming to "debunk reports that Russians were responsible for the DNC hacks."
"In turn, Butowsky and Zimmerman hoped that, if they could shift the blame for the DNC hacks from the Russians to Seth Rich, this would undermine reports of collusion between Russia and the Trump Administration," the lawsuit reads.
The suit alleges that Butowsky "kept in regular contact" with then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer and chief strategist Steve Bannon about the Rich story before its publication. Wheeler and Butowsky met with Spicer about a month before the story published and the press secretary "asked to be kept abreast of developments," the lawsuit alleges.
Spicer, who recently left the White House, acknowledged to NPR he met with Wheeler and Butowsky. He told the outlet "it had nothing to do with advancing the president's domestic agenda" and "they were just informing" him of the Fox story.
Spicer told NPR he did not know of any contact between Butowsky and Trump. Butowsky told the outlet that he did not share a draft with Trump and he was "joking" about the president's involvement.
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Wheeler is still a Fox News contributor.