Doctor who touted drug in conservative media faces DOJ scrutiny

What's amazing about this story isn't just the DOJ scrutinizing a doctor; it's how the DOJ came to take an interest in the physician.
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By Steve Benen

Up until fairly recently, Donald Trump and many voices on Fox News were quite enthusiastic about a drug called hydroxychloroquine. The president and the conservative media outlet repeatedly touted the medication as a possible coronavirus treatment, despite a lack of evidence. It now appears that was unwise: the FDA, among other government agencies, is cautioning against prescribing the anti-malarial drug for COVID-19 patients.

But as Trump and Fox News shift gears, there are some lingering questions surrounding those who promoted the unproven drug so aggressively. In fact, the Washington Post reports today that federal prosecutors are taking a closer look at a doctor in New York whose work was frequently referenced on Fox News -- he was also reportedly in communication with the White House -- and who touted the medication. [Update: see below]

What's amazing about this story, however, isn't just that the Justice Department is scrutinizing a doctor; it's how the Justice Department came to take an interest in the physician. From the Post's report:

The examination of Vladimir "Zev" Zelenko's records began when an associate, conservative commentator Jerome Corsi, accidentally sent an email intended for Zelenko to another "Z" name in his address book -- federal prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky, who as a member of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's team had spent months scrutinizing Corsi's activities during the 2016 presidential election.

I can think of a handful of instances in which I've accidentally sent emails to the wrong person, but I'm pleased to report none of those missives sparked Justice Department interest.

Let's back up to review how we arrived at this point. If Jerome Corsi's name sounds familiar, he was a right-wing gadfly in the Obama era, helping lead the "birther" crusade. More recently, the conspiracy theorist received scrutiny as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. (He was "Person 1" in the Roger Stone indictment, but Corsi was not charged as part of the probe.)

As part of that ordeal, Corsi had communications with federal prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky, who worked on Mueller's team. With this in mind, when Corsi intended to send an email to Zev Zelenko, it's easy to understand how he might accidentally email Aaron Zelinsky.

But that slip-up may prove problematic for the New York doctor who repeatedly touted hydroxychloroquine. After all, the Justice Department is taking alleged coronavirus-related crimes quite seriously, and Zelinsky is directly involved in that effort.

As for the email itself, according to Corsi, Zelenko had inadvertently made a false claim about an FDA-approved test, and Corsi was trying to explain the problem to him when he accidentally contacted a federal prosecutor.

Zelenko, who's apparently working with Corsi on some kind of website, is working with an attorney who said they have not been contacted by federal law enforcement.

That said, the Post's report added, "It is unclear how seriously prosecutors are scrutinizing the matter. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. But even passing interest from federal authorities into efforts to promote the anti-malarial is likely to chafe the president and his allies, particularly given the involvement of a former member of Mueller's team."

Update: I heard from a Fox News representative who explained, "The Washington Post piece that you cited was incorrect and they have since issued a correction. Dr. Zelenko has not made frequent FOX News appearances, in fact he has never been on our network."