The Fox factor: How Trump's favorite network could guide his Iran policy at a pivotal moment

Posted January 8, 2020 1:19 a.m. EST

— A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

When George W. Bush prepared to send troops into Iraq, there weren't a lot of questions about what TV networks or talk radio hosts were influencing his decisions. When Barack Obama contemplated military action in Libya, Syria, and other countries, there weren't constant stories about what MSNBC hosts were advising him to do.

But as the US and Iran exchange military blows against each other in Iraq, it's not only possible, but perhaps likely, that what President Trump sees on Fox News is shaping his views and guiding his decisions. Before signing off for the night, Brian Stelter actually texted me, "I just set my alarm clock for 5am ET because 'Fox & Friends,' the president's daily televised briefing, is starting an hour earlier than usual on Wednesday."

The situation is further compounded, of course, by the fact that the White House press secretary has stopped holding formal press briefings. Instead, to get a sense of what the President might be thinking, Americans are left with watching Sean Hannity's show.

On Tuesday night, Lindsey Graham and Kevin McCarthy both appeared on his Fox show, touting that they had spoken to Trump earlier. Graham said Iran's fate was in its hands, warning, "You continue this crap you're going to wake up one day out of the oil business." And McCarthy praised Trump's judgement, telling Hannity, "He'll access the damage and he'll respond accordingly."

Meanwhile, Hannity himself continued to talk about potentially striking three of Iran's oil refineries, something he also mentioned Monday night. (Is someone briefing him?) He added, "[Iran's] hostility will now be met with the full force of the greatest, most advanced, most sophisticated military this world has ever seen."

As NY Mag's Olivia Nuzzi noted on Twitter, "It is actually insane that the American people have to tune into a partisan cable news channel to get anything close to a briefing on the president's thinking as the nation fumbles toward a war with Iran." THR's Jeremy Barr bluntly stated it like this: "As usual, gotta watch Hannity to find out about war."

The voice absent from Hannity's show

Geraldo Rivera tweeted Tuesday evening, saying he would be appearing on Hannity's show urging Trump to show "restraint." But soon after, Rivera followed up with another tweet: "Never mind Hannity just canceled me." Instead, Hannity stacked his line up with voices like Oliver North, Pete Hegseth, and Dan Bongino...

Trump to issue statement Wednesday morning

Trump didn't deliver a televised-address to the nation on Tuesday (more on that later). Instead, the President chose to communicate through Twitter: "All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning."

As CNN reported, Iraqi security officials said there were NO causalities at Iraqi bases following the attacks on the al-Asad airbase in Anbar province and the attacks in Erbil. Moreover, a US military official and senior administration official told CNN that the initial assessment is that the Iranian missiles hit areas of the al-Asad base not populated by Americans.

There was some speculation that Iran perhaps didn't intend to inflict maximum damage, instead choosing to save face by launching the missiles, but not causing the greatest harm against US interests it could have. "Iran has pretty good missile targeting, so they probably deliberately hit empty ground," tweeted Nicholas Kristof.

>> Maggie Haberman tweeted: "Some around POTUS think he is looking for an off-ramp." Jim Acosta also said on CNN, "I think he's trying to turn down the temperature that he, frankly, cranked all the way up."

Grisham's priority? Attacking CNN

While the situation with Iran was developing, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham apparently thought the best use of her time was too attack CNN. As Jeremy Barr put it, "As Iranian missiles fly toward U.S. service members, it's important to remember the real enemy: CNN."

CNN cited multiple sources Tuesday evening to report that Trump was making preparations for an Oval Office address, though the specific timing was unclear and could be delayed. Fox News' Bret Baier also reported that the White House was "making preparations." As did WaPo's Josh Dawsey.

But Grisham chose to attack CNN. "This is not true - was never true - & no one even attempted to confirm with the press office before tweeting," Grisham tweeted. "In a race to be first to break news, the public once again falls victim to irresponsible 'reporting' by @CNN @jeffzeleny @kaitlancollins."

CNN's communications team responded forcefully, "The most shocking thing about this statement is that the @presssec is completely out of the loop in her own shop. CNN's reporting that preparations were being made for an address was 100 percent accurate, and was confirmed with multiple WH officials. Nice try."

"Chaotic and mistake-prone"

Brian Stelter emails: This is disappointing, on so many levels, but the WaPo headline is accurate: "Amid confusion and contradictions, Trump White House stumbles in initial public response to Soleimani's killing." David Nakamura and Josh Dawsey's story notes that Trump has "overseen a chaotic and mistake-prone public response since the operation..."

Read more of Tuesday's "Reliable Sources" newsletter... And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox...

Notes and quotes

-- MSNBC's Chris Hayes dropped the mic with this sign-off: "War with Iran is madness and it is strategically and morally a disaster in the making. And don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise."

-- "CBS Evening News" anchor Norah O'Donnell tweeted: "Because of tonight's developments in the Middle East, Vice President Mike Pence had to postpone our exclusive interview. We'll bring it to you tomorrow night..."

-- NBC's Richard Engel asked the million dollar question: "We'll see if cool heads prevail. This doesn't need to slide into a full blown war, which will nasty and long. Iran says it will stop if not hit. Both sides have stuck. Can they now step back and assess?"

-- CNN's Gabe Ramirez tweeted: "I was on the ground at the beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003 and all I can say is I'm so glad Twitter didn't exist."

-- Top headline on the Drudge Report: "IT'S WAR!"

-- Yashar Ali's thread is worth a read: "I want to express this carefully cause I don't want to minimize anything that results in loss of life. But missiles flying back/forth in Mid East is all too common (something US can handle) & not what makes me nervous about the Soleimani situation. Here's what makes me nervous..."

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