White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday denied that President Donald Trump knew about a retracted Fox News story that floated conspiracy theories about a slain Democratic National Committee staffer.
Former Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler has sued the network over the story, alleging that it, along with a well-connected Trump-backer, knowingly pushed a thinly-sourced conspiracy theory about Rich’s death to deflect from growing concerns about Trump’s potential ties to Russia. The lawsuit also alleged that the Trump supporter — Edward Butowsky — and Wheeler met with former White House press secretary Sean Spicer about the story. Wheeler also alleged that Butowsky told him that Trump had read a draft of it, which Butowsky has claimed was just a joke.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Sanders said that Trump “had no knowledge of the story,” and claimed that “it is completely untrue that he or the White House had an involvement in the story,” though Spicer himself admitted he met with Butowsky and Wheeler.
New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush pressed Sanders, asking whether she was disturbed that Spicer met with people who were attempting to knowingly push a thin story.
“Does it disturb you that there’s an allegation out there in a lawsuit and Sean Spicer admitted meeting these two individuals, that this was discussed in your White House?” Thrush said.
“He met with members of the media?” Sanders said. “I don’t find that to be a strange thing.”
Thrush noted that Spicer “met with a member of the media that were pushing a story that was later retracted because it was false.”
“He met with that reporter, and he met with a campaign donor,” Thrush said. “Does it disturb you, does it say anything about this White House that you’d entertain that story?”
Sanders responded that it doesn’t bother her “that the press secretary would take a meeting with a somebody involved in the media about a story.”
Wheeler, a former Metropolitan Police Department officer, was a key figure in a series of debunked stories claiming that Rich had been in contact with Wikileaks before his death. Fox News, which reported the story online and on television, retracted it in June.
In a statement to Business Insider on Tuesday, Rich’s family said it hoped the lawsuit puts an end to the various conspiracy theories swirling around Rich’s death last year.
“While we can’t speak to the evidence that you now have, we are hopeful that this brings an end to what has been the most emotionally difficult time in our lives and an end to conspiracy theories surrounding our beloved Seth,” the family said in a statement.
Police have said repeatedly that Rich was shot during an attempted robbery while he was walking home from a bar in Washington, DC.
Yet the staffer’s death has become the source of wild speculation, as right-wing media figures fanned unproven speculation that Rich was killed for leaking embarrassing internal emails of DNC staffers during the 2016 election. Numerous US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian intelligence hacked and leaked internal DNC communications.