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On Fox News, of all places, Trump’s ‘spy’ claim is debunked by Trey Gowdy and even Judge Napolitano

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said the FBI was justified in using a secret informant to assist in the Russia investigation, rebuking President Trump's "spy" claim. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

President Trump has made it clear that he likes what he hears on Fox News. The network often covers the president favorably, bringing on conservative commentators who push the president’s agenda and, at times, explore far-right conspiracy theories.

But in an unusual shift Tuesday, three voices on Fox News pushed back against the president’s most recent conspiracy theory. A Fox News guest, commentator and anchor all rebuked claims from the president and his allies that the FBI planted a “spy” in his campaign in an effort to undercut his candidacy.

Outgoing Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the House Oversight Committee chairman and a Trump supporter, said in an interview on Fox that the FBI was justified in using a secret informant to assist in the Russia investigation. Gowdy, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, attended a classified Justice Department briefing last week on the FBI’s use of the confidential source, identified as Stefan A. Halper.

“President Trump himself in the Comey memos said if anyone connected with my campaign was working with Russia, I want you to investigate it, and it sounds to me like that is exactly what the FBI did,” Gowdy told host Martha MacCallum. “I think when the president finds out what happened, he is going to be not just fine, he is going to be glad that we have an FBI that took seriously what they heard.

“I am even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got, and that it has nothing to do with Donald Trump,” Gowdy said. Asked about the president’s tweets on the subject, Gowdy added that such statements could be subject to questioning by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

“If I were his lawyer, and I never will be, I would tell him to rely on his lawyers and his [communications] folks,” he said.

Asked to respond to Gowdy’s remarks, a Fox News commentator known for defending the president also cast doubt on Trump’s claims. Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano (better known and often quoted by Trump as Judge Napolitano) said claims that the FBI placed an undercover spy on Trump’s campaign “seem to be baseless.”

“There is no evidence for that whatsoever,” Napolitano said. The fact that the FBI source spoke with “people on the periphery of the campaign,” he said, “is standard operating procedure in intelligence gathering and in criminal investigations.”

MacCallum, the Fox News anchor, pressed Napolitano, asking him, “If that were the case and the president said, ‘I want to know if anybody’s working with Russia,’ why was he not sort of clued in to that?”

Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge, replied that “frankly, that’s a judgment call.”

“I understand the president’s frustration that he was not informed of the fact that his campaign was being investigated,” Napolitano said. “Would I have told the candidate? I would have. But I respect the judgment of those who decided not to tell him. If they were there for some nefarious reason, the one Giuliani suggested, to gather data from the campaign and pass it to the West Wing and pass it to Mrs. Clinton, I’d want to see evidence before I made an allegation that outrageous.”

As The Washington Post has reported, there is no evidence to suggest that the FBI informant was inserted into the campaign. He did, however, seek out and meet three Trump campaign advisers.

Napolitano’s reluctance to back Trump’s claims was surprising in part because of Napolitano’s previous tendency to peddle conspiracy theories with no evidence. Trump is known to watch Napolitano on Fox News and has even quoted the legal analyst in tweets and seemingly appeared to follow his advice. Just last week, Trump tweeted a quote from Napolitano apparently delivered on Fox News: “It’s clear that they had eyes and ears all over the Trump Campaign,” Trump quoted Napolitano as saying.

In March 2017, Fox News temporarily pulled Napolitano off the air after he made the baseless assertion that President Barack Obama had asked for British assistance in wiretapping Trump. Later in the week, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer referenced Napolitano’s claim in a news briefing, and Trump also repeated the assertion in a news conference.

“All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for that on television,” Trump said. “I didn’t make an opinion on it. That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox.”

Fox News was then forced to distance itself from Napolitano’s comments, saying it could not confirm Napolitano’s commentary and that it knew of no evidence supporting the wiretapping claims.

In a rally in Nashville on Tuesday night, Trump doubled down on his theory, asking the crowd: “How do you like the fact they had people infiltrating our campaign?”

President Trump answered questions from reporters on May 23, about his attacks on the FBI's Russia investigation and their informant during the 2016 campaign. (Video: The Washington Post)

Earlier in the day, the president once again fired out tweets condemning the Russia investigation as a partisan “Witch Hunt” and saying it could amount to “MEDDLING” in this year’s midterm elections. The same day, Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said the president will not agree to an interview with the special counsel until prosecutors allow the president’s legal team to review documents related to the FBI’s use of the source.

In his with Fox News, Gowdy called on the president to sit down for an interview with Mueller. He said the president should feel “heartened” that senior officials at the Justice Department, including FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, “now are all Trump appointees.” He said that Trump is not the target of the investigation.

“If he were my client,” Gowdy said, “I would say, ‘If you’ve done nothing wrong, then you need to sit down with Mueller.’ ”

It’s not the first time the South Carolina Republican has expressed his disapproval of the way the president and his legal team are approaching the Russia probe. Earlier this month, Gowdy condemned Trump’s attorney John Dowd for calling on the Justice Department to end the special counsel probe.

“If you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it,” Gowdy said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Also on Fox News on Tuesday, anchor Shepard Smith ripped apart the president’s “conspiracy theories” that Mueller and his team are meddling in the midterms, calling the allegations “unfounded, not based in fact or reason, with no evidence to support them.”

“There’s nothing to support that claim, and neither the president nor the White House has offered anything to support that claim,” Smith said, quoting Trump’s Tuesday morning tweet.

Smith also dismantled the president’s spy accusation, saying, “Fox News knows of no evidence to support the claim.”

“Lawmakers from both parties say using an informant to investigate suspected ties to Russia is not spying; it’s part of the normal investigative process,” Smith said.

It is not the first time Smith has gone against the grain of Fox News coverage. In November, the anchor stirred anger from Fox News viewers when he debunked conservative conspiracy theories surrounding a uranium deal involving former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Many Fox News conservative viewers called for Smith to be fired.

Tuesday brought a rare dose of Trump fact-checking on Fox News.

But come nightfall, there’s always Sean Hannity.

On his Fox News show Tuesday night, the conservative commentator stood behind Trump’s baseless spy claims, saying, “Robert Mueller’s out-of-control Russia probe has now lost all sense of legitimacy.”

Obama’s Justice Department, Hannity said, “utilized at least one informant to spy on multiple Trump campaign officials and associates during the 2016 election. And by the way, the media is lying about it.”

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