Here's what Trump’s Fox News cabinet wants him to do about Iran

Most of Trump's Fox advisers support some sort of military strike
Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

President Donald Trump is getting divergent views from the trusted members of his Fox News cabinet about how to respond to rising tensions between the United States and Iran -- but almost all of them support some sort of military strike on Iranian targets.

In recent months, an escalating pattern of tit-for-tat maneuvers has drawn the two nations closer to direct military confrontation. On Thursday night, in response to what the U.S. says was Iran downing an unmanned American surveillance drone in international waters, Trump reportedly ordered a retaliatory military strike on Iranian targets. He then reversed his decision while the operation was underway.

Several senior administration officials, including national security adviser and former Fox News contributor John Bolton, a longtime Iran hawk, reportedly favored a military response. But top Pentagon officials (echoing many external national security experts) reportedly warned that even a limited U.S. military strike could trigger an Iranian escalation, leading to a wider conflagration that might spiral out of control.

This reported divide among the president’s official advisers is being mirrored in the advice he is receiving through his television set. Fox’s hosts and guests are an important source of information for Trump, who watches hours of coverage each day and often tweets about segments that catch his eye, and their opinions can shape his worldview and actions.

With one key exception, pro-Trump commentators at the network have mostly been recklessly arguing that the president should strike Iran and can do so without risking an escalation.

Friday morning on Fox & Friends, the hosts differed on the wisdom of Trump calling off the strike the night before but broadly agreed that a military response was inevitable and could be achieved without risk.

Co-host Brian Kilmeade was harshly critical of Trump throughout the broadcast, slamming what he depicted as the president’s lack of action in the face of one-sided Iranian aggression.

“They blow up four tankers and we do nothing,” he argued. “When they blow up our drone that costs $130 million and we do nothing, we know it's not going to end there. So at some point, in the Middle East, no action looks like weakness, and weakness begets more attacks."

Kilmeade scoffed at the notion of engaging in additional diplomacy with Iran, saying it “makes us look so weak” to do so at this point. He also claimed, “If it was President Obama, ... every Republican would be losing their mind. So I think people have to be consistent here and be concerned about America's image and our strength.”

His co-hosts, Steve Doocy and Ainsley Earhardt, offered a much more charitable view of Trump’s reaction, effectively saying that they have faith that Trump knows what he’s doing and will respond in due time. “The president appears measured and reasonable in saying, ‘OK, you know what, before we do anything, we’re going to try to talk to them one last time,’” Doocy said.

Pete Hegseth, a co-host of the program’s weekend edition who also privately advises Trump, staked out a middle ground during a guest appearance on the show. He argued that a military response was necessary and inevitable, saying, “The reason we have international waters and international air space in the world today is the United States Navy and the United States Air Force. If we allow our drones, manned or unmanned, to be shot down and we don’t respond, that’s going to create a world where those spaces are contested. You cannot allow this to happen. This is -- you got to strike back.”

While Hegseth, unlike Kilmeade, avoided directly criticizing Trump’s response, he suggested that it would be a problem if Iran did not quickly improve its behavior and the president continued to avoid military action.

While these Fox hosts and sometime Trump advisers were divided over how the president responded, they largely downplayed the possibility that a military strike could lead to a dangerous escalation.

Meanwhile, Joey Jones, a retired Marine and guest on the program, told the hosts, “Listen, I deployed to Afghanistan, I deployed to Iraq. I don't want to see anyone deployed. I think if Iran provoked us to that point, it would be a pretty quick and easy war. I really do believe that.”

Trump apparently tuned in to the network’s morning show Fox & Friends at least at some point on Friday morning, as he tweeted about a segment that ran in its 7 a.m. hour. He did not mention the program’s response to him calling off the Iran strike.

On Thursday night, before the news broke that Trump had ordered and then called off a military response, Fox’s three prime-time hosts were similarly split over what the president should do.

Sean Hannity, the network star who is also reportedly one of the president’s most influential advisers, was the most bellicose of the three, stressing that Trump “does not want war” and that a military strike would not risk one. “In coming days, we will know if the mullahs are smart enough to take the opportunity, which is a small window -- it may not even exist within five minutes,” he said. “Because if they don't, the president will have no choice. He will bomb the hell out of them.”

“If they do not end this hostility, if they do not stop, the mullahs of Iran will feel pain, I predict, like never before,” he added. “And it will -- they will earn it. They will make it happen.”

Like Hannity, Ingraham argued that Iran has engaged in “blatant provocation” and said she would support “a targeted show of force” if Trump believes it “can produce the intended deterrence.” But she was more forthright in warning against any wider war, saying Trump was elected in part because of his repudiation of the Bush administration’s hawkish foreign policy and so the U.S. “must be wary of doing anything that will draw us into another long-term conflict in the region.”

Notably, Ingraham couched her opposition to a broader war in explicitly political terms, saying, “The only real obstacles that I see to Trump’s winning in 2020 are one, an economic collapse and two, a new American war. That risks Trump throwing in with the Bush war hawks and a repudiation of his own doctrine of principled realism in foreign policy.”

By contrast, Tucker Carlson, who has reportedly counseled Trump directly on Iran, warned on Thursday’s program that any military strike could spiral out of control. “The same people who lured us into the Iraq quagmire 16 years ago are demanding a new war, this one with Iran,” he said, adding that Trump, “to his great credit, appears to be skeptical of this -- very skeptical.”

Carlson slammed the “permanent foreign policy establishment in Washington” for criticizing Trump for not responding militarily to Iran. “None of these people will admit their actual intentions,” he said. “They'll tell you they don't really want to war with Iran. That's a crock. They want a war badly, badly enough to lie about it. That's why they're putting American troops into situations where conflict is inevitable in order to start a war.”

So far, Carlson’s view seems to be carrying the day. But by its nature, the Fox-Trump feedback loop creates instability as the president is famously impulsive and can quickly change his mind based on input from the television. It’s unclear what the next few days will bring.