The Trump-Fox feedback loop could cause a war with Iran

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

President Donald Trump tweeted about a Fox News segment Monday morning that urged a U.S. military strike against Iran, a worrisome development as experts warn that rising tensions between the two nations could quickly spiral out of control.

Fox both serves as Trump’s personal propaganda outlet and shapes his worldview. The president regularly watches hours of Fox coverage and often tweets about segments that catch his eye. He has stocked his administration with former Fox personalities, the network’s most prominent figures serve as his outside advisers, and guests openly appeal to him during their on-air appearances. Fox segments have an immense influence over this White House, with the president acting based on what he sees on the network on everything from political strategy to pardons.

On Monday morning at 11:49 a.m. ET, Trump tweeted, “Iran to defy Uranium Stockpile Limits.”

That text matched the chyron of a Fox segment that aired just a few minutes earlier. The segment focused on Iran’s warning that it will soon exceed the limit on its stockpiling of uranium -- set by the 2015 nuclear deal the Trump administration withdrew from last year -- if it doesn’t receive additional aid from Europe to counteract the effect of U.S. sanctions.

Trump’s tweet comes during a period of increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran, during which “an escalating tit-for-tat has pushed the two sides closer to a military confrontation,” as Politico put it on Friday. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that “a full range of options” -- including a military strike -- are currently under discussion. If undertaken, a military response might prove disastrous; experts have warned that even a limited U.S. military strike could trigger an Iranian escalation, leading to a wider conflagration.

“You could see the administration going down a path of limited military action against Iranian targets, … but the risk of miscalculation is much higher,” Ilan Goldenberg, who served in the Pentagon and the State Department during the Obama administration and is now at the Center for a New American Security, told Politico. “If President Trump is able to be convinced that he can do that without Iranian retaliation, he would be playing with fire.”

The Fox segment Trump tweeted about hammered home that very message Goldenberg warned Trump might be influenced by, encouraging U.S. military action against Iran while arguing that such action would not lead to a broader war.

“History will tell you Iran only responds to strength,” anchor Julie Banderas said during the segment, which Trump apparently watched. “Strength in numbers, strength in military action, is needed, according to Mike Pompeo, who says that the president would back that.”

“Do you believe that military action is needed?” Banderas asked former CIA officer and Fox contributor Daniel Hoffman. “I agree with the secretary,” Hoffman replied.

Banderas went on to air a clip of Jack Keane, a retired general and Fox senior strategic analyst, pushing back against claims from critics by arguing that military action would not result in a war and that the U.S. has “got to have enough resolve to stand up to” Iran “much as Ronald Reagan did in the late 1980s” when the U.S. attacked Iranian navy ships and oil platforms.

Keane regularly advises Trump and has twice turned him down when asked to serve as secretary of defense, making his voice particularly important.

Fox pushed the same message over the weekend, repeatedly informing the president that a military strike is necessary and will come without costs.

On Sunday morning, for instance, Trump tweeted about two segments from roughly the first half hour of Fox & Friends Weekend.

In between those segments, Fox hosted notorious anti-Muslim hawk Jim Hanson to respond to statements from the U.S. that Iran was responsible for attacks on two Japanese oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week. Hanson argued that the U.S. should retaliate against Iran, saying, “It's time to go ahead and turn some of the fast boats they are using to do this into oil slicks in the Gulf.”

Hanson was also quick to push back against critics who argue that such a response could have dire repercussions, saying, “No serious person is calling for war with Iran, which is what the Iran apologists are [saying].”

“So you’re suggesting, perhaps, not a full-scale war, perhaps an attack that gets Iran’s attention, retribution down the road, and gets them to the table and we deal from a position of strength,” co-host Ed Henry replied.

If Trump tuned in on Saturday night to Fox’s Justice with Jeanine Pirro, as he typically does, he heard several of his hawkish political allies praise his actions, denounce Iran, and urge him to keep the pressure on.

“Thank God for President Trump,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said when Pirro asked him about the situation with Iran. “They are feeling the pressure and pushing back. We got them in a corner. They are a wounded cage animal.” He went on to direct the following advice to Trump: “Do not let them take over the Strait of Hormuz, keep the pressure on, and if they continue to do this, sink their navy like Ronald Reagan did back in the 80s.”

Iranians “only understand strength,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) similarly argued. “Iran is the individuals that fund the terrorism around the world, the attacks going into Israel, the attacks going into Saudi Arabia, the problems anywhere else around the world, nine times out of ten it's Iran that’s using it and a part of it.”

And Anthony Scaramucci, the hedge funder who very briefly served as White House communications director, argued that Iran’s leaders “are expecting the president like other presidents to back down. They don't really know the guy, OK. So, the signal to those guys should be ‘OK, we are not backing down, you don’t understand this president, he’s very different from these other presidents.’” He added, “Ultimately, the theocracy of Iran will die and there will be a systemic change there for the better.”

It remains unclear how the conflict between the U.S. and Iran will play out. But with the stakes this high, it’s unnerving that the president is wallowing in Fox’s spin.