Aug 01

Today in Russiagate

It’s a slooow news day in the Russiagate story, only two major blockbuster reports.

The first is the Washington Post’s revelation that The Donald personally and against the advice of his staff dictated Donald Jr.’s initial statement about the infamous Re: Russia – Clinton – private and confidential email and meeting. This happened under a month ago on July 8th while Trump was flying home from the G20 summit in Germany.

President Trump is now directly implicated in trying to cover up the Russia scandal
By Paul Waldman, Washington Post
August 1, 2017

In case you haven’t been following, the meeting occurred because Trump Jr. was promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton that was presented to him as coming from the Russian government. He summoned Kushner and Manafort, forwarding them the email in which that offer was made. They joined him at the meeting, which was attended by a lawyer with close ties to the Kremlin, a former Russian intelligence officer and a gentleman who was once the subject of a congressional inquiry into an enormous Russian money-laundering operation. According to Trump Jr. and Kushner’s version of events, the damaging information didn’t materialize, and the Russians were more interested in discussing the potential repeal of the Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned certain Russian individuals accused of corruption and human rights abuses. So the line from the Trump team is essentially that they were trying to collude with the Russian government to help their campaign, but the attempt was unsuccessful.

This latest story is clearly one of the most significant developments in this scandal to date, for two reasons. First, it describes an organized effort to mislead the public — not to spin, or minimize the story, or distract from it, or throw out wild accusations about someone else, but to intentionally fool everyone into believing something false. Second, it implicates the president himself. Indeed, the most extraordinary part of the picture this story paints is that while other people involved were recommending some measure of transparency on the assumption that the truth would come out eventually, they were overruled by the president, who personally dictated the misleading statement.

And it gets worse. Once the story broke, Trump’s own lawyer went to the media and denied that the president was involved in the drafting of the misleading statement. In two televised interviews, Jay Sekulow said “the president was not involved in the drafting of the statement,” “The president didn’t sign off on anything,” and “The president wasn’t involved in that.” While it’s theoretically possible that Sekulow would make emphatic statements of fact like those about what his client did or didn’t do without actually asking Trump, that seems almost impossible to believe. Sekulow is a prominent attorney who knows exactly what kind of trouble that could bring, both to himself and his client. So the only reasonable conclusion is that he was repeating what Trump told him.

So, to put this together: The president of the United States personally wrote a statement about this meeting with the Russians, a statement that everyone involved knew to be false. Going further, he then either lied to his own lawyer about his involvement so that the lawyer would repeat that lie publicly (highly likely) or was candid with his lawyer and persuaded him to lie to the media on his behalf (much less likely).

Hmm… Lying to your lawyer is seldom the best course of action.

The second story was broken by NPR. Do you remember the unfortunate Seth Rich, the DNC staffer who was killed in a botched robbery attempt in July of 2016? Perhaps you have a better recollection of Sean Hannity dusting off the conspiracy theory that Rich was the person responsible for the DNC email leak and was assassinated by a mysterious Clinton hit squad in May of this year and flogging it on Faux Noise until the surviving Rich family threatened to sue in order to stop him.

A person who did sue was Rod Wheeler, a long time Faux Noise commentator and former Police Detective who was the Private Investigator whose report was used as the basis of the coverage.

The back story is creepy enough, but documents filed in court for Wheeler’s lawsuit say that this totally fabricated piece of nonsense was developed in co-operation with the official White House Communications Office under the not-quite-gone-yet (his resignation takes effect August 15th) Sean Spicer and personally (there’s that word again) approved by The Donald himself.

Behind Fox News’ Baseless Seth Rich Story: The Untold Tale
by David Folkenflik, NPR
August 1, 2017

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 aide, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The explosive claim is part of a lawsuit filed against Fox News by Rod Wheeler, a longtime paid commentator for the news network. The suit was obtained exclusively by NPR.

Wheeler alleges Fox News and the Trump supporter intended to deflect public attention from growing concern about the administration’s ties to the Russian government. His suit charges that a Fox News reporter created quotations out of thin air and attributed them to him to propel her story.

Fox’s president of news, Jay Wallace, told NPR on Monday that there was no “concrete evidence” that Wheeler was misquoted by the reporter, Malia Zimmerman. The news executive did not address a question about the story’s allegedly partisan origins. Fox News declined to allow Zimmerman to comment for this story.

The story, which first aired in May, was retracted by Fox News a week later. Fox News has, to date, taken no action in response to what it said was a failure to adhere to the network’s standards.

The lawsuit focuses particular attention on the role of the Trump supporter, Ed Butowsky, in weaving the story. He is a wealthy Dallas investor and unpaid Fox commentator on financial matters who has emerged as a reliable Republican surrogate in recent years. Butowsky offered to pay for Wheeler to investigate the death of the DNC aide, Seth Rich, on behalf of his grieving parents in Omaha, Neb.

On April 20, a month before the story ran, Butowsky and Wheeler — the investor and the investigator — met at the White House with then-press secretary Sean Spicer to brief him on what they were uncovering.

The first page of the lawsuit quotes a voicemail and text from Butowsky boasting that Trump himself had reviewed drafts of the Fox News story just before it went to air and was published.

Spicer now tells NPR that he took the meeting as a favor to Butowsky, a reliable Republican voice. Spicer says he was unaware of any contact involving the president. And Butowsky tells NPR that he was kidding about Trump’s involvement.

The network cited an unnamed FBI official. And the report relied heavily on Wheeler, a former police detective, hired months earlier on behalf of the Riches by Butowsky.

These developments took place during growing public concern over a federal investigation into the Trump camp’s possible collusion with the Russian government during the campaign. The allegations have since touched the president’s son and son-in-law, his former campaign manager, his attorney general and his first national security adviser, who resigned as a result.

The question of Rich’s death took on greater urgency for Butowsky after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in early May. Comey had been overseeing the Russia investigation. The story ran just a week later.

Fox’s report went sideways shortly after it was posted online and aired on Fox & Friends. It was denounced by the Rich family, D.C. police, Democratic Party officials and even, privately, by some journalists within the network. Within hours, Wheeler told other news outlets that Fox News had put words in his mouth.

Despite those concerns, Wheeler appeared on the shows of Fox Business host Lou Dobbs and Fox News star Sean Hannity, who devoted significant time to the story that night and in subsequent days. In speaking with Wheeler, Hannity said: “If this is true and Seth Rich gave WikiLeaks the DNC e-mails … this blows the whole Russia collusion narrative completely out of the water.”

A week later, on May 23, Fox retracted the story, saying the reporting process failed to live up to its standards. Hannity said he would take a break from talking about Rich’s death out of respect for the family. And there it has largely stood — until now.

In the lawsuit, the private investigator sets out a different version of events. Wheeler, a paid Fox News contributor since 2005, alleges the story was orchestrated behind the scenes and from the outset by Butowsky, who hired him on behalf of the Rich family.

The following account reflects the verbatim quotes provided from the texts, emails, voicemails and recorded conversations cited in Wheeler’s lawsuit, except as otherwise noted.

According to the lawsuit, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer meets at the White House with Wheeler and Butowsky to review the Rich story a month before Fox News ran the piece.

On May 14, about 36 hours before Fox News’ story appears, Butowsky leaves a voicemail for Wheeler, saying, “We have the full, uh, attention of the White House on this. And tomorrow, let’s close this deal, whatever we’ve got to do.”

Butowsky also texts Wheeler: “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.”

Spicer now confirms meeting with the two but denies claims about the president.

Spicer says he is not aware of any contact, direct or not, between Butowsky and Trump. And Butowsky now tells NPR he has never shared drafts of the story with Trump or his aides — that he was joking with a friend.

Instead, Butowsky repeatedly claims that the meeting was set up to address Wheeler’s pleas for help landing a job for the Trump administration. Wheeler’s attorney, Wigdor, says there is no evidence to support that claim.

In the suit, Wheeler alleges that Butowsky was using the White House references to pressure him.

Wheeler did play his own role in furthering the story. But he contends that he regretted it the same day it aired. His suit alleges Fox News defamed him by manufacturing two false quotations attributed to him and ruining his reputation by blaming him as the deceptive story fell apart. Wheeler, an African-American, is also suing the network for racial discrimination, saying he failed to advance as prominently as white counterparts. Fox News had no comment on that allegation.

Wheeler, a 57-year-old former Washington, D.C., homicide detective, was part of the Metropolitan Police Department from 1990 to 1995, when he was dismissed, according to the agency. His New York City-based attorney, Wigdor, says Wheeler was fired for insubordination after his urine tested positive for trace amounts of marijuana.

When he meets with Butowsky, Wheeler has been a paid contributor to Fox News for more than 11 years and has been actively but unsuccessfully seeking greater exposure on the network, according to the suit.

Five days later, the two men meet in person at a lunch in Washington. Butowsky introduces an unexpected third guest: Malia Zimmerman, a Fox News investigative reporter based in Los Angeles known for enterprise reporting from a conservative standpoint.

According to the account in the suit, Butowsky cautions Wheeler before they set out to meet the Riches: “[M]ake sure to play down Fox News. Don’t mention you know Malia.”

And Butowsky lays out a different mission than aiding the Rich family. Butowsky says he became convinced that the FBI had a report concluding that Seth Rich’s laptop showed he had had contacts with WikiLeaks after speaking to the legendary reporter Seymour Hersh, who was also investigating Rich’s death. According to the transcripts in the lawsuit, Butowsky says Hersh had an FBI source who confirmed the report.

Rich’s parents initially welcome Wheeler’s help and Butowsky’s largesse. On March 14, Butowsky pays Wheeler $5,000, through a limited partnership company called Googie LP. (NPR found that Butowsky is listed in Texas public records as its general partner.)

Wheeler does not make great headway. The FBI informs Butowsky, Wheeler and Zimmerman that the agency is not assisting the Washington, D.C., police on the investigation — undercutting claims about an FBI report.

A Metro D.C. police detective tells Wheeler that Rich’s death was likely a robbery gone awry and that the FBI is not involved.

On May 9, Trump fires Comey.

On May 10, Butowsky and Zimmerman call Wheeler to say they have an FBI source confirming emails were sent from Seth Rich to WikiLeaks, though they do not share the source’s identity, according to the investigator’s suit. Wheeler will later say this is the only federal law enforcement source that Fox News — or he — has related to this story.

The next day, Zimmerman sends Wheeler a draft of her story, which is to run initially on the network’s website. It includes no quotes from Wheeler.

On the evening of May 14, Butowsky leaves a voicemail for Wheeler raising the stakes by invoking the White House and saying, “Let’s close this deal.”

A bit later that night, at 9:10 p.m., Butowsky texts Wheeler, according to Wheeler’s suit: “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.”

As the night before the story is aired progresses, Butowsky is awake, online and anticipating what is to unfold in a few short hours.

Butowsky sends an email to Fox News producers and hosts coaching them on how to frame the Rich story, according to the lawsuit. Recipients included Fox & Friends hosts, Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt and Brian Kilmeade.

On the evening of May 15, Fox News’ sister local station in Washington, Fox 5 DC, runs a story online at once promoting and pre-empting the network’s apparent scoop. “The police department nor the FBI have been forthcoming,” Wheeler tells the station. “They haven’t been cooperating at all. I believe that the answer to solving his death lies on that computer, which I believe is either at the police department or either at the FBI. I have been told both.”

Asked whether his sources have told him about information linking Rich to the WikiLeaks email dump, Wheeler says, “Absolutely. Yeah. That’s confirmed.”

The next morning, the story goes national.

Fox News reports that evidence from Rich’s laptop showed he had been in contact with WikiLeaks just days before the site posted those emails. Fox also reports that powerful forces were trying to quash the official investigation into his death.

On Fox & Friends, the hosts call the story a “bombshell.”

Zimmerman’s online story cites an unnamed “federal investigator who reviewed an FBI report” for its findings. It also cites Wheeler, incorporating two key quotations from Wheeler that do not appear on video. In each, the private investigator seemingly takes ownership of the accusations.

The first: “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks.”

The second: “My investigation shows someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward. That is unfortunate. Seth Rich’s murder is unsolved as a result of that.”

The Riches torch Wheeler, saying they have seen no proof for his contentions.

Wheeler alleges both quotations were fabricated and untrue.

According to the lawsuit, Zimmerman promises to have those lines removed — but they stay in the story. Zimmerman then tells him that her bosses at Fox News had instructed her to leave those quotes in.

That same day, the suit recounts, Zimmerman writes a letter to Seth Rich’s father, Joel, distancing Fox News from responsibility for what the network reported: “Much of our information came from a private investigator, Rod Wheeler, who we understand was working on behalf of you.”

Wheeler challenges Zimmerman over the letter in a three-way phone conversation that also included Butowsky. The Fox News reporter defends herself: “That’s the email that Fox asked me to send him. They wrote it for me.”

Wheeler replies: “That’s not accurate, though, because much, much of the information did not come from me.”

“Not about the emails. Not the part about, I mean, the connection to WikiLeaks,” Zimmerman acknowledges. “But the rest of the quotes in the story did.”

Butowsky weighs in: “One day you’re going to win an award for having said those things you didn’t say.” Later, according to the recordings transcribed in the suit, Butowsky acknowledges Wheeler hadn’t made any claims of personal knowledge about emails between Rich and WikiLeaks. “I know that’s not true,” Butowsky says. “If I’m under oath, I would say I never heard him say that.”

Both try to keep Wheeler on board, however.

Zimmerman issues instructions for Wheeler’s appearance on Sean Hannity’s show later that evening. “Reread the story we sent you last night [that contained the invented quotes] and stick to the script,” she texts Wheeler.

Despite his misgivings, Wheeler plays along. On Hannity’s show, Wheeler says he doesn’t personally know about Rich’s emails or computers but says that a “very credible” federal investigator says “he laid eyes on the case file.” Wheeler offers energetic speculation though not much more: “When you look at that with the totality of everything else that I found in this case it’s very consistent for a person with my experience to begin to think well perhaps there were some e-mail communications between Seth and WikiLeaks.”

Probably the Fake News angle goes nowhere, it’s entirely possible that Butowsky is a blowhard liar and Spicer is slipperier than a slime eel (though it might have legs, the burden of proof in a Civil case is much lower than a Criminal one, still it will likely just get settled). What’s instructive is that this is the kind of “journalism” practiced daily by Faux Noise.

The other minor point of interest is that you can have TWO HUGE STORIES like this in just a single day.

And it’s early yet, as I write 3 pm ET. There’s plenty of daylight left for something else earth shattering to happen.

1 comment

  1. Vent Hole

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