WASHINGTON — In the spring of 2017, then-senior White House counselor Steve Bannon got a text message from a producer for CBS’s “60 Minutes” inquiring about a wild story getting traction on internet websites and chat rooms. It involved Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer who had been shot and killed on the streets of Washington the previous July, and claims that his murder was retribution for a supposed role in leaking internal Democratic Party emails to WikiLeaks.
“In the conversations I've had with Steve, he tended to go towards conspiracies,” recalls Ira Rosen, the “60 Minutes” producer who sent Bannon that text message. “He liked conspiracies, and he believed in them. He talks about the deep state. He talks about black ops.”
In the case of Rich, Bannon didn’t disappoint. When Rosen asked about rumors that a “disgruntled insider … kid’s name was Seth Rich” had sold Democratic emails to WikiLeaks, Bannon responded with no shortage of certainty.
“Huge story. He was a Bernie [Sanders] guy,” Bannon wrote back in a series of text messages that falsely characterized Rich’s political sympathies. As for Rich’s death from an early-morning shooting in a neighborhood 30 blocks north of the Capitol, Bannon upped the ante. “It was a contract kill, obviously,” he texted Rosen.
Rosen doubted that Bannon — prone to flippant bomb-throwing asides in his chats with journalists — actually believed that Rich was gunned down by hired assassins. But he had little doubt what Bannon was up to.
The White House at that moment was increasingly besieged by the ongoing investigations into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, and the role it played in boosting Trump’s candidacy. But if it could be shown that it was Rich — and not Russian intelligence agents — who provided the stolen emails to WikiLeaks, then the White House could turn the Russia story on its head.
“He’s trying to whet my appetite to actually go chase the thing,” says Rosen about his email exchange with Bannon. “He was trying to spin a counternarrative, and Seth Rich fit perfectly within that counternarrative.”
Bannon declined to respond to multiple requests for comment about his text messages. And, in the end, Rosen never pursued the Rich story. He made a few phone calls to police and FBI sources in Washington, he says, and quickly determined there was nothing to what Bannon had told him.
But at that very moment, another news outlet far more sympathetic to the president — Fox News — was preparing to take up the story. The network’s pursuit of the story would soon lead to one of the most embarrassing episodes in the history of America’s biggest cable news outwork.
How Fox News came to report an inflammatory and unsubstantiated Rich conspiracy story — and then, after hawking it for a week on its top-rated shows, retract it and strike it from its website — is the subject of the next two episodes of Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland.” The first of those episodes, “Fox News Fiction,” is being released Tuesday.
It is a story with many twists and turns that ultimately raises a provocative question: What role did the Trump White House play in promoting one of the nastiest conspiracy theories rising out of the 2016 election?
The central player in this drama is Ed Butowsky, a hard-charging Dallas financier and inveterate political schmoozer with connections at Fox News. (He was an occasional guest commentator on the Fox Business Network.) He was also on friendly terms with a number of Trump White House officials, including Bannon and then-press secretary Sean Spicer.
During the Obama years, Butowsky had served on a “citizens’ committee” to investigate Benghazi and would often talk about how he got important information about the deadly incident into the media without leaving any fingerprints. “Behind the scenes I do a lot of work (unpaid) helping to uncover certain stories,” he once boasted. “My biggest work was revealing most of what we know today about Benghazi.”
In late 2016, Butowsky claims, he got a hot tip that caused him to plunge headfirst into the Rich story. His supposed tipster was Ellen Ratner, a liberal radio talk show host who due to family ties — her late brother Michael Ratner had been the U.S. lawyer for WikiLeaks — had met with Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London during the closing days of the 2016 campaign.
Butowsky then passed along his tip, or at least his version of the tip, to the Rich family in a phone call after the election. “He had told us that a friend had gone to visit Assange, and Assange had told them that Seth had done it,” recalled Mary Rich, Seth’s mother, referring to Butowsky’s claim that her son had provided Democratic Party emails to WikiLeaks. “We said, ‘It’s not true. ... Seth didn’t do that.’ And then Ed told us to look for the money that Assange had paid. And we said, ‘Trust me, there is no money.’”
Butowsky would go on to repeat the same story about his alleged tip to other potential collaborators on the Rich story. But Ratner, interviewed for the first time about this for the “Conspiracyland” podcast, vigorously disputed the financier’s claims. She did indeed meet with Assange, along with other members of her family, at the Ecuadorian Embassy just a few days before the 2016 election, she said. But, she added, neither Rich, nor any role he might have played in leaking or selling DNC emails, was ever mentioned during her meeting with the WikiLeaks founder. “It didn’t even come up,” she said. “Not at all.”
Butowsky never revealed Ratner’s identity to the Riches. They had no idea that Butowsky’s alleged tipster was prepared to contradict what he had told them. But the Riches were interested in something else that Butowsky would soon offer to help with: hiring a private investigator to find their son’s killers.
The Washington Police Department was convinced from the start that Rich’s death was the result of a botched robbery. There had been seven armed robberies in the Bloomingdale neighborhood where Rich was killed, all within the six weeks prior to his death. The cops and prosecutors had linked those holdups to drug-dealing activity in nearby housing projects.
But the cops had made little progress in identifying any suspects in Rich’s murder — a cause of no end of frustration for his parents. “I needed to hire a private investigator that can go door to door,” said Mary Rich. “And I was trying to figure out how in the world we could ever afford it, because we couldn't.”
It was at that point that Butowksy offered not only to hire the private investigator but also to foot the bill. “And I sat there and I went, ‘Oh, God, don't say this, don't say this,’ and I did,” he recalled. “I said I'll pay for it. And I have no idea why I said that.
“So then this is where everything in my life changed.”
Butowsky’s determination to pursue the Rich story was further fueled by a strange phone call he had with legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. After being put in touch with Butowsky by a former U.S. intelligence official who was a longtime source for the journalist, Hersh, who is occasionally given to loose, boastful comments, proceeded to spin out a bizarre and unverified narrative about Rich and a supposed secret FBI document.
“What I know comes off an FBI report,” Hersh told Butowsky in a phone call that the financier secretly taped. Rich “makes contact with WikiLeaks. That’s in his computer, and he makes contact. All I know is that he offered a sample, an extensive sample, you know, I’m sure dozens of emails, and said, ‘I want money.’ Then later WikiLeaks did get the password, he had a Dropbox, a protected Dropbox. And they [WikiLeaks] got access to the Dropbox.”
And how did Hersh know this? “I have somebody on the inside who will go and read a file for me,” he told Butowsky. “And I know this person is unbelievably accurate and careful. He’s a very high-level guy, and he’ll do me a favor.”
Hersh’s claims in this secretly taped phone fall were exactly what Butowsky wanted to hear. The moneyman immediately started pressing the journalist to get him a copy of the FBI report so he could share it with his friends in the White House.
“We solve a lot of problems” with that report — and not just “letting a mother and father know what happened to their son,” he said in the phone call. “There’s so many people throughout Trump’s four years or maybe eight years who are always going to fall back on the idea that he’s not legitimate and the Russians got him elected. This changes all of that.”
But no sooner did Butowsky start pressing him than Hersh backed off. He had no access to the FBI report, he emphasized to Butowsky, and he couldn’t actually vouch for what his “high level” source told him. “It doesn’t make it true,” Hersh told him.
Months later, when Butowsky ignored Hersh’s cautionary words and started publicizing his remarks in that phone call, the journalist walked back what he had said in its entirety.
“I was not read anything by an FBI friend,” he told Butowsky in a previously unreported email that contradicted what he had previously said in that taped phone call. “I have no firsthand information, and I really wish you would stop telling others information you think that I have and that I have no reason to believe is accurate.” (When contacted by Yahoo News, Hersh declined to be interviewed on tape for the “Conspiracyland” podcast. But he emphasized he never published anything about the supposed FBI report on Rich because he never had any corroboration that such a document actually existed.)
But Butowsky was not to be put off. He reached out to a Fox News contributor —Rod Wheeler, a former Washington police homicide detective — and hired him as the private investigator for the Rich family. Then he took Wheeler to the White House to meet with press secretary Sean Spicer so he could brief him on his efforts to investigate the Rich murder.
What happened at this White House meeting would later be a matter of dispute. Spicer and Butowsky would both insist that nothing happened at all. As soon as Wheeler brought up the Rich case, they insisted, Spicer shut down the conversation and emphasized that it was not a White House issue.
That’s not how Wheeler remembered it. Spicer gave him his business card and his personal cellphone number, Wheeler told CNN’s Chris Cuomo, and offered to do what he could to facilitate the private investigation by putting him in touch with an official at the Justice Department. “If you need some more help, give me a call,” Spicer told him, according to Wheeler’s account. (Spicer declined to comment.)
Perhaps even more important, Butowsky put Wheeler in touch with a Fox News reporter, Malia Zimmerman, who was working to prove what Hersh had originally said in that secretly taped phone call. On May 10, the day after FBI Director James Comey was fired, she claimed to Butowsky she had talked to a federal investigator who wished to remain anonymous but had supposedly seen an FBI forensic report documenting emails between Rich and WikiLeaks.
It was an enormous break — if true. But Zimmerman knew she needed more sources for the article to pass muster with her editors, and she began reaching out to Wheeler to get him to provide on-the-record quotes to support her story.
When Wheeler at first balked, Butowsky decided to turn up the heat, leaving a highly provocative voicemail for the detective.
“Hey, Rod, it’s Ed,” Butowsky said on a voicemail message he left on Wheeler’s home answering machine on May 14. “A couple of minutes ago, I got a note that we have the full attention of the White House on this. And tomorrow, let’s close this deal.“
Then he followed up with an even more eyebrow-raising text message to Wheeler. “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article, he wants the article out immediately,” he wrote Wheeler.
Butowsky insists he has never spoken to Trump in his life and that he was only joking with Wheeler in these messages. He invoked the interest of the White House, he says, as a way to pressure him to return Zimmerman’s phone calls.
“I was teasing with him to tell him, let's get this thing done,” said Butowsky. “I was bulls***ting with Rod, of course.”
Whatever the truth about the White House involvement, Butowsky’s tactics worked. Wheeler got back to Zimmerman. She told him her mysterious source was “this FBI guy, a former FBI guy” whom she considered credible. Wheeler agreed to provide a few on-the-record quotes to corroborate Zimmerman’s story even though, as he would later admit, the only thing he knew about the sole source for the article was what Zimmerman had told him. “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks,” he said.
Then, even as Zimmerman was finishing up the article she was about to send to her Fox News editors in New York, Wheeler jumped the gun, prematurely revealing what her article would say to a different reporter for the Fox News affiliate in Washington, D.C.
The affiliate then went public with a story that would set off a political and media explosion — even though everything in it was wrong.
Next week on “Conspiracyland”: “Fox News Fallout.”
Cover thumbnail: Ed Butowsky, Malia Zimmerman and the late Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Facebook (2) , via Twitter)
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