William Barr told Murdoch to 'muzzle' Fox News Trump critic, new book says

Martin Pengelly
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/AFP/Getty Images

The attorney general, William Barr, told Rupert Murdoch to “muzzle” Andrew Napolitano, a prominent Fox News personality who became a critic of Donald Trump, according to a new book about the rightwing TV network.

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Barr’s meeting with Murdoch, at the media mogul’s New York home in October 2019, was widely reported at the time, with speculation surrounding its subject. According to Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth, by CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, subjects covered included media consolidation and criminal justice reform.

“But it was also about Judge Andrew Napolitano.”

Stelter’s in-depth look at Fox News, its fortunes under Trump and its links to his White House will be published on Tuesday. The Guardian obtained a copy.

In early 2019 it was reported that Napolitano, a New Jersey superior court judge who joined Fox News in 1998, told friends he had been on Trump’s shortlist for the supreme court. But he broke ranks later in the year, labeling Trump’s approaches to Ukraine, seeking political dirt on rivals, “both criminal and impeachable behavior”.

Related: Barr meets with Murdoch, Trump criticizes Fox News (2019)

“The criminal behavior to which Trump has admitted,” Napolitano wrote, in a column dated 3 October, “is much more grave than anything alleged or unearthed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and much of what Mueller revealed was impeachable.”

Citing an unnamed source, Stelter writes that Trump “was so incensed by the judge’s TV broadcasts that he had implored Barr to send Rupert a message in person … about ‘muzzling the judge’. [Trump] wanted the nation’s top law enforcement official to convey just how atrocious Napolitano’s legal analysis had been.”

Barr has been widely accused of riding roughshod over the rule of law, in service of Trump and his own authoritarian view of the presidency.

Though Barr’s words to Murdoch “carried a lot of weight”, Stelter writes, “no one was explicitly told to take Napolitano off the air”. Instead, Stelter reports, Napolitano found digital resources allocated elsewhere, saw a slot on a daytime show disappear, and was not included in coverage of the impeachment process.

In Stelter’s telling, Napolitano thought he was being kept off air by “25-year-old producers” who didn’t think viewers could handle his analysis. Stelter, however, says an unnamed “twentysomething staffer” confirmed that one host, Maria Bartiromo, would only book Napolitano to discuss non-Trump topics, because he would upset Bartiromo too much if he criticised the president.

Fox News’ audience, of course, remains loyal to Trump as his campaign for re-election continues. Some Fox employees, Stelter writes, “justified the benching of the judge by claiming that viewers hated him: ‘Why are we going to book someone who kills our ratings?’”

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Napolitano has continued to appear on Fox News and to publish opinion columns. He has remained critical of Trump, for example slamming the actions of federal officers sent to confront protesters in Portland, Oregon; opposing attempts to provide coronavirus relief without congressional involvement; and saying Senate Republicans should have called new witnesses in the president’s impeachment trial.

He has also had harsh words for Barr, for example calling his conduct in the case of Trump ally Roger Stone “Stalinistic”; blasting his handling of the Mueller report to Trump’s advantage; and hitting him for “insulting” Congress.

Napolitano did, however, back Barr’s attempt to drop charges against Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with Russian officials.