President Trump is known to turn to Fox News for a sympathetic ear from the networks hosts and pundits — who usually oblige him. In recent months, however, one of his longtime favorites — Andrew Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge — has flipped the script, haranguing the president regularly over what he calls “immoral” and “condemnable” conduct detailed in the Mueller Report.
Napolitano’s airtime has slipped in recent months — he had 123 appearances on Fox News and Fox Business for the last eight weeks, an 18 percent drop from the same period last year (when he appeared 150 times), according to figures obtained by TheWrap. But his resistance pivot has also coincided with an expanding portfolio at Fox News and the streaming service, Fox Nation, that launched last November.
And multiple individuals at Fox News say that Napolitano, far from becoming an outcast on the Trump-friendly channel, has never been more firmly entrenched. “He is a completely beloved figure in the building. He is a mentor for young people. He has forged tremendously close relationships with people,” one network insider told TheWrap. “Judge Napolitano will be around a lot longer than Donald Trump will be.”
A second network insider added, “Judge Nap is extremely solid at Fox News.”
Though one Napolitano friend said that just 18 months ago he was irritated that his bosses did not give him his own show — something the judge denied through a spokesperson — the landscape since has changed in the last year. (Both Napolitano and a Fox News rep otherwise declined to comment for this story; the network also did not dispute the figures about his on-air appearances.)
While Napolitano still doesn’t have a regular gig on Fox’s two cable news networks, he has hosted “Liberty File” on Fox Nation four days a week since the streamer launched last November. And he continues to deliver opinion sermons on a FoxNews.com-hosted digital show, “Judge Napolitano’s Chambers.”
But those once little-noticed monologues have taken on new buzz with Napolitano’s tough anti-Trump rhetoric. After the Mueller report was dropped last month, Napolitano said the special counsel’s revelations “might be enough to prosecute” Trump for obstruction of justice. Though Attorney General William Barr decided against indictment, Napolitano followed up days later by calling Trump’s behavior “immoral,” “criminal,” “defenseless” and “condemnable.”
When White House adviser Jared Kushner dismissed Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election as a “couple of Facebook ads,” the judge called him out on Fox Business as “disingenuous and deceptive.”
A Fox News insider said it was no coincidence that the judge was rarely seen these days on primetime, where the network’s opinion firebrands have favored another frequent Fox News legal expert, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, who has pushed back against the judge’s (and others’) criticisms of Trump.
“Dershowitz and Napolitano is the line in the sand. It’s the difference between what happens during the day and what happens when the sun goes down,” the first insider said.
Napolitano’s reversal on the president is all the more surprising because the two men have long been friends, according to Bob Torricelli, a former Democratic senator from New Jersey who has known the judge for years.
“There is a deep respect of and for Donald Trump and I think it’s mutual,” Torricelli told TheWrap. “We can be friends and allies and also be critical of each other. I am sure there are things he wishes the president did differently.”
Torricelli said there had been “pretty close consultation” between the two men after the president was first elected.
That respect, however, might not be shared completely by Trump, who took to Twitter last month to praise Dershowitz for “destroying the very dumb legal argument of ‘Judge’ Andrew Napolitano.” The president also suggested that Napolitano had been “hostile” to him for denying the judge’s request for an unnamed friend and “ever since Andrew came to my office to ask that I appoint him to the U.S. Supreme Court, and I said NO!”
During an April 29 appearance Fox Business, Napolitano shot back, saying it was the president who had first raised the idea of a pardon for a mutual friend — whom he also did not name — and that Napolitano had never seriously believed he was in contention for a Supreme Court seat but that the idea had come up in jest while they were talking about who should replace Antonin Scalia.
“This is the way you treat your friends? How do you treat your enemies?” Napolitano exclaimed in disbelief to anchor Maria Bartiromo. “He and I have been friends for 30 years.”
Nick Gillespie, an editor at large at Reason Magazine who has known the judge for years, said he found Napolitano’s account credible.
“The judge’s explanation of Trump’s taunts about asking to be nominated to the Supreme Court and requesting a pardon for a friend are completely credible to me,” Gillespie said. “Trump is the serial liar, not Judge Andrew Napolitano.”
It’s not so long ago that Napolitano’s legal pronouncements on Fox News could spark an instant and approving presidential tweet — like in January 2018, when Trump bashed a House vote on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act after an appearance by the judge on “Fox & Friends.”
The judge’s influence with Trump sometimes even went beyond Twitter. After Napolitano told “Fox & Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade that President Obama had been spying on Trump with British intelligence while he was a candidate in 2016 — then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeated the charge during a daily briefing.
Though Napolitano was condemned by critics who said there was no evidence and even briefly suspended by Fox News, the president stood by the judge in a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House, calling him a “very talented legal mind.” (A 2017 report in the Guardian partially vindicated Napolitano, reporting that Britain’s spy agency GCHQ had in fact intercepted Trump campaign communications and shared them with the Obama administration as part of what CNN sources called “incidental collection.”)
Despite the recent anti-Trump rhetoric, it’s unlikely Napolitano will ever be embraced by true-blue resistance fighters. “He’s a crank,” liberal activist Judd Legum told TheWrap. “I would never take him seriously.”
Indeed, during his years in the public eye, Napolitano has gone on record with a number of ideas that have raised eyebrows. He has promoted 9/11 conspiracy theories and argued to Jon Stewart on the “Daily Show” in 2014 that President Lincoln launched the the Civil War “because he needed the tariffs from the Southern states.” In his 2010 book “The Constitution in Exile,” Napolitano called Lincoln “dishonest Abe” and said the 16th president “he misled the nation into an unnecessary war.”
The ups and down of his career have not been lost on the judge himself. “It’s just an occupational hazard,” Napolitano said during a May 2 interview with conservative radio host and former “SNL” star Joe Piscopo. “If you don’t have thick skin over here, go get another job, go teach.”