Retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a former Fox News contributor who in the past harshly criticized President Barack Obama's foreign policy, unloaded on his former network in an interview with CNN on Wednesday night for its part in pushing a baseless conspiracy theory about the FBI spying on President Trump's 2016 campaign.
"For years, I was glad to be associated with Fox. It was a legitimate conservative and libertarian outlet, and a necessary one," Peters said. "But with the rise of Donald Trump, Fox did become a destructive propaganda machine, and I don't do propaganda for anyone."
Peters, a Pottstown native who attended Penn State before enlisting in the Army in 1976, said the network's prime-time opinion hosts shoulder the blame for undermining public support in the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Hosts like Sean Hannity have been repeatedly pushing unfounded theories for the last year about a "deep state" determined to tear down Trump and his administration, the latest dubbed "Spygate" by the president himself.
"I suspect Hannity really believes it. The others are smarter. They know what they're doing," Peters said. "It's bewildering to me. I mean, I wanted to just cry out and say, how can you do this? How can you lie to our country? How can you knowingly attack our Constitution, the bedrock of our system of government, the bedrock of our country?"
Peters, who spent much of his military career focusing on Russia, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in March that Fox News blocked him from speaking about Russia on the network. On CNN, Peters has no such restrictions, and accused Trump of being in the grip of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"Before he became a candidate or president, Donald Trump was the perfect target for Russian intelligence. Here is someone who has no self-control, a sense of sexual entitlement, and intermittent financial crisis. I mean, that's made-to-order for seduction by Russian intelligence," Peters said. "And, look, I may be wrong. I hope I'm wrong. I hope he doesn't have a grip on him. But the dossier rings true. I think in the future, we're going to look back at the much-maligned Christopher Steele, who took that dossier to the FBI, as something of a hero."
Fox News responded to Peters' comments by reissuing a statement first released in March, which stated, "Ralph Peters is entitled to his opinion despite the fact that he's choosing to use it as a weapon in order to gain attention. We are extremely proud of our top-rated primetime hosts and all of our opinion programing." The network also denied to the Washington Post that Peters was "blocked" from talking about Russia during his appearances on the network.
So far, there is nothing to support the president's assertions about a "witch hunt." Even House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday he has seen "no evidence" that the FBI planted a spy within Trump's presidential campaign. In recent days, a number of Republican senators and House members have also denounced the president's claims.
"What is the point of saying that there was a spy in the campaign when there was none?" Rep. Tom Rooney (R., Fla.), a top lawmaker on the House Intelligence Committee, told Politico on Wednesday. "You know what I'm saying? It's like, 'Let's create this thing to tweet about knowing that it's not true.' … Maybe it's just to create more chaos, but it doesn't really help the case."
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee who oversaw the Republican investigation into the Benghazi deaths, publicly defended the Justice Department's actions in an appearance on Fox News.
"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. "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."
Peters isn't the only person calling out the prime-time opinion hosts on Fox News. The network's own news division, led by Shepard Smith Reporting host Shepard Smith, has repeatedly fact-checked claims involving baseless theories and false statements designed to defend Trump.
"President Trump has also claimed the feds spied on his campaign with an informant. The president calls it 'Spygate,' " Smith said last week during his show. "Fox News can confirm it is not. Fox News knows of no evidence to support the president's claim."
In the last week, Smith has reported that the Trump administration lied about a campaign meeting with a Russian operative involving Donald Trump Jr., fact-checked claims Mueller's investigation was a "witch hunt," and pushed back on assertions made by the White House that members of the Super Bowl-champion Eagles knelt in protest during the national anthem last season.
"It is the reporting of Fox News that every Eagle stood at every game every time. None knelt," Smith said. "The entire team stood for the anthem every game last season."