It took only hours for one of the biggest stories in conservative media this week, which some outlets had chosen to focus on over news that President Trump disclosed classified information to senior Russian officials, to fall apart.
On Monday night, Rod Wheeler, a private investigator and Fox News contributor, put things in motion during an interview with WTTG-TV, a Fox affiliate in Washington.
Wheeler, who was under contract with the family of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer who was fatally shot in July, told WTTG-TV evidence existed that proved Rich had been in contact with Wikileaks before his death.
For months, right-wing media outlets have floated unproven theories that Rich was the person who provided Wikileaks thousands of internal DNC emails, and that his death might have been connected with the supposed leak. No real evidence has been provided to support such claims and Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, which continues to investigate the murder, says there is evidence to suggest he may have been the victim of a botched robbery.
Nevertheless, a handful of right-wing media outlets have latched on to the theory — and Wheeler’s remarks on Monday allowed the narrative to once again ricochet throughout the conservative media universe.
“NOT RUSSIA, BUT AN INSIDE JOB?” asked Breitbart, the far-right website previously led by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, which said that “if proven, the report has the potential to be one of the biggest cover-ups in American political history, dispelling the widespread claim that the Russians were behind hacks on the DNC.”
“DEAD DNC STAFFER ‘HAD CONTACT’ WITH WIKILEAKS,” declared the headline of the Drudge Report, the highly-trafficked conservative news destination.
Fox News on Tuesday morning joined in the chorus, publishing a lead story on its website about the “DC MURDER MYSTERY.” The story said Wheeler had made the claim Wikileaks had been in contact with Rich. It added that a federal investigator, who it said had spoken on the condition of anonymity, corroborated it.
But Tuesday afternoon, Wheeler told CNN he had no evidence to suggest Rich had contacted Wikileaks before his death.
Wheeler instead said he only learned about the possible existence of such evidence through the reporter he spoke to for the FoxNews.com story. He explained that the comments he made to WTTG-TV were intended to simply preview Fox News’ Tuesday story. The WTTG-TV news director did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“I only got that [information] from the reporter at Fox News,” Wheeler told CNN.
Asked about a quote attributed to him in the Fox News story in which he said his “investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and Wikileaks,” Wheeler said he was referring to information that had already been reported in the media.
A Fox News spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
Earlier Tuesday, Brad Bauman, a spokesman for the Rich family, released a statement in which he said the family had “seen no evidence” to suggest Seth Rich had been in contact with Wikileaks.
Bauman told CNN the outlets that had run with the story “have shown over and over again that they are willing to lie and manipulate the facts” to further “their own political end.”
“I think it’s important for everyone at Fox News to be careful with this information and how this story breaks because using the legacy of a murder victim in such an overtly political way is morally reprehensible,” he said.
Bauman also said the Rich family was reviewing possible legal action against Wheeler for speaking about the case publicly. A contract between Wheeler and the Rich family prohibited from speaking to the media about his ongoing investigation, Bauman said.
“It is possible that this private investigator is in breach of a non disclosure contract,” Bauman told CNN, adding that the private investigator’s public comments have “seriously impeded the ability of the Metropolitan Police Department to investigate.”
Asked whether he was in breach of a contract, Wheeler said, “I don’t know, it’s hard to say.”
“I think that’s something I will have to work out with [the family],” he added.
Wheeler was put in touch with the Rich family through Dallas businessman Ed Butowsky, who told CNN he had offered to pay any bills associated with the investigation.
“You have a family who can’t afford a PI. Their son was killed. So I offered to help out,” Butowsky said.
Butowsky, a financial adviser, has provided commentary to Fox News on a number of occasions. He has also written columns for Breitbart, and was critical of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election.
Speaking with NBC News, Butowsky had denied his involvement with Wheeler and the Rich family. Asked why, he told CNN, “I didn’t want to talk to NBC.”
Butowsky also said that, thus far, he hasn’t “paid any money to anybody.” He said Wheeler was investigating the Rich murder at no cost.
CNNMoney (New York) First published May 16, 2017: 9:17 PM ET