For years, Donald Trump’s advisers and allies have watched as the president changes his policy positions within hours, if not minutes, of something he sees on Fox News. But never had the stakes as high as the past week, when he immediately walked back the threat of war with Iran after his favored Fox hosts counseled against it on television.
On Tuesday, Fox’s prime-time talent stable urged the president against escalation, from hawkish supporters like Sean Hannity, who praised the drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani but argued that “Washington swamp creatures [want to] send our kids to war,” to the more dovish Tucker Carlson, who hammered the decision repeatedly from the moment the Iranian general’s killing became public.
One viral segment saw Carlson arguing that the very intelligence agencies the president attacked for their roles in the Mueller investigation were the ones now counseling him toward war.
“It seems like about 20 minutes ago, we were denouncing these very people as ‘the Deep State’ and pledging never to trust them again without verification,” Carlson said. “But now, for some reason, we do seem to trust them, implicitly and completely. In fact, we believe whatever they tell us, no matter how outlandish.”
Hannity, for his part, offered a solution Wednesday that would sate Trump’s desire to flex military muscle while keeping troops off the ground. “I would imagine that those refineries and maybe even those nuclear sites that are buried deep underground could be potential targets” for drone strikes, he suggested during an interview with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), adding that it could plunge the country into “major poverty.”
Inside the White House, the president’s advisers have closely tracked how supportive or negative Fox hosts have been about Trump’s Iran actions, but, they said, Trump has relied on his own advisers for Iran strategy. And they disputed the idea that Carlson and Hannity were on opposite poles of the Iran debate.
“The view on Wednesday is that Tucker was totally supportive of what Trump was doing and Tuesday night we didn’t see any divide between" Carlson and Hannity, an administration official said.
In conversations with several White House sources familiar with Trump’s decision-making process, the president had indeed monitored the chatter of cable news, the internet and print media after his decision to kill Soleimani, following that with various tweets threatening to ratchet up sanctions and even destroy 52 Iranian sites, including some cultural ones.
White House officials have grown wise to reporters’ queries about their boss’ viewing habits, wary of the inevitable stories that ascribe one weighty decision or another to the mighty influence of Fox News.
While they acknowledged that Fox opinions on the strikes had reached the president’s ears, aides downplayed the extent to which they moved him. “Why would you give credit to a bunch of TV hosts on that?” asked a second White House official, noting that Trump was in the Situation Room on Tuesday night as Carlson went on air.
But their protestations usually run into one stubborn fact: The president really does watch and absorb copious amounts of cable news, whether in the bank of screens near the Oval Office or via the souped-up DVR he uses in the White House residence. In 2019 alone, Trump tweeted at least 558 times responding to Fox segments, according to a forthcoming study by Media Matters for America, a liberal group that tracks conservative media.
Many of his predecessors developed close relationships with the news media, from John F. Kennedy’s consultations with columnist Joseph Alsop to Barack Obama’s cultivation of David Brooks. But Trump takes an unusually high volume of calls and political advice from television personalities. Often, the president will credit a talking head with a particular idea, giving Twitter shout-outs to his favorite anchors or quoting flattering views he likes. He also ingests private counsel from the likes of Carlson, who was widely credited with persuading Trump to not retaliate last year after Iran shot down an American drone.
Liberals usually decry or lampoon this outsize influence, and a cottage industry of groups and individuals—Media Matters chief among them—has built massive audiences tracing how the latest Fox & Friends thought bubble made its way to the Resolute Desk. But the mockery turned to strange new respect this week when, after BuzzFeed credited Carlson for yet another climbdown, the Fox host received heaps of confused praise for apparently helping avert a war.
“It’s like ashes in my mouth, but a sincere thank you,” tweeted journalist Helen Kennedy, while ethics lawyer Richard Painter tweeted, “Even @TuckerCarlson acknowledges the truth: getting into a war with Iran is nuts.” Journalist Glenn Greenwald, a frequent Carlson guest and fellow skeptic of interventionist foreign policy, said the Fox host had offered “some of the most vehement & unflinching denunciations of Trump’s assassination attack on Iran of anyone in the media.”
Aides rationalize the Fox-to-Trump pipeline as a way for the president to break out of the liberal groupthink they say infects most mainstream media outlets.
“I think he likes that they give a different spin on his administration than what the American people are used to seeing,” said a third administration official. “If you just get your news diet from CNN and MSNBC, you’re going to hear nothing about all the accomplishments that this administration is getting done.”
What’s more, the official argued, Trump isn’t the only one in Washington taking cues from cable. Speaker "Nancy Pelosi got the idea of withholding the articles from CNN, so it’s hardly unique for a public official to see something on the news and for that to spark an idea,” this person said, hastening to add, “Although that doesn’t apply to what happened with the recent tensions with Iran.”
A former senior White House official attributed Trump’s willingness to absorb advice from his favorite cable pundits to his hunger for alternatives to tired, conventional Washington wisdom.
“The difference with Trump is that he wasn’t just going to roll over and say, ‘OK, I get it. You’ve been doing it for 20 years, so I’m going to just do what'” government experts say, this former official said. “There is a sense that you’re getting the same old, same old, and his whole point is, ‘This is why we keep doing the same thing over and over again.’”