By Brian Tashman (Right Wing Watch)
In recent days a report from Washington D.C.’s Fox affiliate on the death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich has dominated the conservative media world, including Fox News, Breitbart, InfoWars, and the Drudge Report, while most other outlets are covering the ever-increasing number of White House scandals.
The local Fox broadcaster’s story relied on the word of a private investigator, Rod Wheeler, who claimed he discovered that Rich had transferred tens of thousands of emails to WikiLeaks, the group which released hacked DNC emails during the 2016 presidential election.
Wheeler, as it turns out, was a Fox News analyst, vocal Trump supporter and conspiracy theorist who was being paid by another Fox News pundit, Ed Butowsky. (Butowsky initially denied that he had any role in the investigation but then admitted that he had lied about his involvement.) Both the Washington, D.C. police and Rich’s family rejected Wheeler’s “findings,” with a family spokesman saying that “there is a special place in hell for people” who “would try and manipulate the legacy of a murder victim in order to forward their own political agenda.”
Despite initial glee from right-wing media pundits—Alex Jones of InfoWars declared that Wheeler “got in the laptop” that Rich was using—it turns out that Wheeler has absolutely no evidence that Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks.
Wheeler admitted to CNN that he had no evidence and based his allegations on something he heard from a Fox reporter:
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.
NBC News also reported that FBI officials rebuffed “the Fox News claim that an FBI analysis of a computer belonging to Rich contained thousands of e-mails to and from WikiLeaks.”
Local police in Washington, D.C., never even gave the FBI Rich’s laptop to analyze after his murder, according to the current FBI official.
And a former law enforcement official with first-hand knowledge of Rich’s laptop said the claim was incorrect. “It never contained any e-mails related to WikiLeaks, and the FBI never had it,” the person said.
Despite this, Fox News ran with the story anyway, and Sean Hannity interviewed Wheeler on his program last night.
Wheeler conceded that he never once saw Rich’s emails or his computer: “I have never seen the emails myself directly. I haven’t even seen the computer that Seth Rich used. I don’t even know where the computer is.”
He told Hannity that he is relying on “a federal investigator” for information, whose tips made him “think that perhaps there were some email communications between Seth and WikiLeaks.”
“I don’t know for sure, I don’t know as a matter of fact if the emails went out to WikiLeaks or anybody else but it sure appears that way,” he said.
Wheeler’s statements on “Hannity” contradict what he told Fox’s Washington D.C. affiliate when he said there was “absolutely” evidence linking Rich and WikiLeaks: “That’s confirmed.”
Hannity, for his part, blindly speculated that Rich was a disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporter who communicated with WikiLeaks because he was outraged by Sanders’s treatment by the DNC.
It seems that no matter how unreliable and discredited this story gets, conservative outlets will likely stand by it.
UPDATE: In an interview with Newsweek, Wheeler said he never talked with the federal investigator—who he told Hannity “came across very credible”—he cited for his story:
The FBI is not investigating the unsolved murder of former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, Newsweek has learned. The bureau’s lack of involvement refutes a Fox News report that an FBI analysis of Rich’s computer showed he had transferred more than 44,000 DNC emails to a person with ties to WikiLeaks. The report cited an unnamed “federal investigator.”
On Monday, a local Fox affiliate quoted Rod Wheeler, a private investigator looking into Rich’s death, as saying he knew of evidence connecting Rich to WikiLeaks. The following day, Fox News published an expanded report, claiming that a “federal investigator” had corroborated Wheeler’s comments.
Citing that source, Fox News said that “an FBI forensic report of Rich’s computer—generated within 96 hours after Rich’s murder—showed that he made contact with WikiLeaks through Gavin MacFadyen,” whom The New York Times described in an obituary as a mentor to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and as director of WikiLeaks. The source said that sometime before May 21, 2016, Rich had transferred 44,053 emails and 17,761 attachments belonging to DNC leaders dating from January 2015 to late May 2016. MacFadyen, the apparent recipient, died of lung cancer last October.
But Newsweek has learned that the FBI is not involved in the Rich case, despite the claims that it is. And speaking with Newsweek, Wheeler, the private investigator, seemed to walk back his comments.
Wheeler was not immediately available to comment on Wednesday about Newsweek’s finding. But in a message to Newsweek on Tuesday, Wheeler said the Fox News report was misleading and that his information was secondhand from that “federal investigator.” “I’ve never, ever seen Seth Rich’s computer, nor have I talked with the federal investigator,” he wrote in a message. “I think it is likely that there is information on the computer that can assist us in the investigation,” he said, “but short of that, I have nothing firsthand.” He added, “I’m just going off of what the federal investigator says.”