Fox News and its biggest stars currently enjoy an unprecedented influence over the federal government’s actions because President Donald Trump is obsessed with the network’s propagandistic programming and relies on its incendiary right-wing personalities for advice.
Fox has effectively merged with the Trump administration, an event with no analogue in modern American history. The network’s sway over the political universe has become so great in recent years that whether you watch it or not, its coverage and commentators have had a tangible effect on your life. In 2020, that impact of the president’s fixation with Fox's coverage culminated in the deaths of an untold number of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump and Fox have a symbiotic relationship dating back nearly a decade. He used its platform and supportive coverage to propel himself to conservative political stardom, the Republican presidential nomination, and the presidency.
Since his election, Trump has filled the top ranks of his administration with friendly faces from the network’s airwaves -- but those who remained at Fox rather than joining the administration may be even more powerful. Several network hosts have also become informal presidential advisers, dual roles that would not pass muster at any other news outlet. Sean Hannity’s unsecured nightly phone calls with the president led White House aides to describe him as the shadow chief of staff. Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro counseled Trump during West Wing visits, while Tucker Carlson traveled to his Mar-a-Lago resort to do the same. Jesse Watters and Pete Hegseth are close enough to the president to be invited to the White House for private dinners. Trump even reportedly had Lou Dobbs conferenced in to provide feedback during administration meetings.
It is dangerous that the president takes advice from the people he sees on his TV. The members of his Fox News Cabinet are bigoted extremists who lack anything resembling the qualifications you would want in senior advisers to the most powerful man on the planet. They have their jobs because they are willing and effective members of a corrupt propaganda machine -- they know how to wield disinformation and marshal the fear and hatred of the network’s hard-right viewers to keep them coming back for more and supporting Republican politicians. And they have the president’s ear because they use their programs to praise him and denounce his foes. Those aren’t credentials for presidential advisers -- they are ingredients for disaster.
Meanwhile, the president’s most important source of information isn’t the U.S. intelligence community -- it’s the dimwitted pro-Trump shills at the network’s morning show, Fox & Friends. The president watches hours of Fox News and its sister network, Fox Business, each day and regularly tweets in response to segments that attract his attention -- at times dramatically shifting the news cycle and government policy. He sent 1,146 of these Fox live tweets from September 2018 through August 2020 -- 7.5% of his total tweets during that period -- according to a new Media Matters report.
This Trump-Fox feedback loop impacts the president’s worldview -- and thus, the government’s actions -- on a scope far beyond any other news outlet in the recent past. And the network’s hold on both have only been strengthened over the course of his administration.
Here are 15 ways Fox drove federal policymaking and political events over the last two years.
- The caravan coverage. In the closing weeks of the 2018 midterms, Trump’s live tweets turned Fox’s obsessive, fearmongering coverage of a caravan of migrants approaching the U.S. border from Central America into a key election issue. After the election, his administration initiated harsh and potentially illegal policies to curtail that flow of asylum seekers.
- Replacing Sessions with Barr. After the midterm election, Trump finally took the advice of his Fox supporters and got rid of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. His replacement, William Barr, had bought into the conspiracy theories of Hannity and his ilk, and he used lies to help stymie special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. He then pushed for Fox’s long-sought criminal investigation into the onset of that inquiry.
- The government shutdown. In December 2018, Fox personalities goaded Trump into partially shutting down the federal government and then keeping it shuttered for a record 35 days over funding for his border wall. The president spent much of the shutdown watching and tweeting reactions to Fox and seeking advice on negotiation strategy from Dobbs and Hannity.
- Impeachment. Fox (and Hannity in particular) played a key role in virtually every aspect of the Ukraine abuse of power scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment, from stoking Trump’s rage toward that country, to supercharging the corrupt anti-Biden disinformation campaign, to providing the talking points the president and his supporters used to respond, to staffing Trump’s Senate defense team.
- Pardoning war criminals. Trump frequently pardons people with Fox ties, and in July 2019, he granted clemency to three accused or convicted war criminals following an aggressive on-air and behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign from Pete Hegseth. The Navy secretary was later forced out after losing a power struggle with Hegseth over his treatment of one of them.
- Who builds the wall? A construction company won $1.7 billion in federal contracts to build sections of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border after Trump repeatedly saw its CEO promoting his bid on Fox and overruled skeptical government officials. One contract is under investigation, and the firm’s “showcase piece” of wall is reportedly at risk of falling down -- while the leaders of its private funder have been charged with fraud.
- Calling off missile strikes. In June 2019, Trump claimed to have called off missile strikes on three Iranian sites with minutes to spare. According to The New York Times, Trump was responding at least in part to Carlson’s argument, made both on his show and to the president personally, that using force against Iran could spiral into a war that would endanger his reelection.
- Hiring, then firing, his national security adviser. Trump hired John Bolton as national security adviser in March 2018, reportedly because he was enamored with the longtime Fox contributor’s on-air defenses of his policies. But 18 months later, Bolton was forced out of the administration after Carlson reportedly spent months “lobbying” the president “to fire” him.
- Investigating Google’s “treason.” In response to misleading and conspiracy-minded Fox coverage of Google, Trump has accused the company of “suppressing voices of Conservatives,” “illegal” activities, and even “treason,” and promised to use federal power to investigate its operations. He subsequently held a White House event in July 2019 and issued an executive order in May over the bias claim, and the Department of Justice is reportedly planning to file an antitrust lawsuit against the company after Barr overruled career attorneys who sought more time to build the case.
- Retaliation against Iran. In January, after the U.S. killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a key figure in Iran’s military and government, and Iran launched a retaliatory strike at a U.S. base, Trump decided not to order a further military escalation. Carlson’s on-air commentary opposing “a new Middle East war” reportedly played a role, as Trump “told people that he had watched Carlson’s show and it had affected his view on the Iran situation.”
- Americans died because the Fox feedback loop slowed coronavirus response. Fox irresponsibly downplayed the threat of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 in late February and early March, likely leading to Trump and the rest of the network's audience failing to take the virus seriously during initial weeks that were vital to curbing the spread -- with lethal results. The president briefly changed his tune after Carlson, in a monologue and a personal visit, warned that the virus “could be really bad.”
- The coronavirus “miracle cure.” After Ingraham and Carlson ran credulous segments touting the untested antimalarial drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine as coronavirus treatments, Trump touted the drugs, leading to weeks of Fox relentlessly promoting them. In response to Fox’s coverage -- and a White House meeting with Ingraham -- Trump reportedly pressured federal agencies to focus on the drugs as potential therapies. The government now owns a massive stockpile of the drugs -- even as the accumulated evidence suggests they are ineffective and the FDA, CDC, NIH, and World Health Organization have all issued cautions regarding its use.
- “Reopening” the economy. Beginning in late March, Fox hosts goaded Trump to focus on ending business closures rather than stopping the virus, and by early April they were claiming the crisis had passed on-air while Ingraham pressed the same argument in the Oval Office. Trump adopted their message, endorsing anti-social distancing protests after seeing a Fox segment on them and celebrating “reopening our country” after the Fox Cabinet insisted that experts were wrong and it was time to do so.
- Turning protests against police brutality into quasi-fascistic campaign fodder. In late May, the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor triggered nationwide protests against police brutality and racism. For months, Trump steeped himself in often-misleading Fox coverage from Carson and others, which focused on virulently denouncing instances of rioting, arson, looting, and property damage. In response, he abandoned legislative efforts at police reform; delivered a quasi-fascist speech at Mount Rushmore in which he echoed Carlson’s monologues; made that demagogic message the centerpiece of his reelection campaign; and ordered federal law enforcement deployed to U.S. cities.
- A coronavirus adviser from Fox’s green room. Radiologist and conservative think-tanker Scott Atlas became a White House coronavirus adviser in August because he reportedly “caught Trump’s attention with a spate of Fox News appearances in recent months” in which he praised the president’s response. In that role, he has reportedly urged Trump to allow the virus to spread through the country’s population in order to build “herd immunity,” a strategy public health experts warn may prove ultimately while incurring a staggering death toll.