How Tucker Carlson manipulates President Trump

The Fox host skillfully plays to Trump’s grievances and blames advisers for his failures

Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

President Donald Trump apparently changed his mind about whether the United States should fund the World Health Organization in response to a monologue from Fox News host Tucker Carlson. It’s at least the third time this year that Carlson’s program has triggered major changes in U.S. policy, an indication of just how effective the Fox prime-time star is at manipulating the president. 

Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported Sunday that Trump, who declared last month that he was freezing the United States’ $400 million annual payment to the WHO, had been “on the brink of announcing” he would restore roughly 10% of the funding up until “late last week.” But then someone leaked the draft of the announcement to Carlson, who broke the news on his Friday-night show, denounced the WHO’s handling of the novel coronavirus, and argued against the funding. Carlson’s appeal seems to have reached the president, as Swan wrote that in light of the segment, Trump was now “leaning toward preserving his total funding cut.” And indeed, on Monday, Trump sent a letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus threatening to permanently pull all U.S. funding if the organization did not “commit to major substantive improvements in the next 30 days."

Many Fox personalities have used the president’s obsession with their network to influence U.S. public affairs in recent years, dictating everything from border-wall construction contracts to federal pardons to government shutdowns. But Carlson is better at this game than any of his colleagues. Twice this year, he staked out a position drastically different from virtually everyone else at Fox -- on whether the U.S. should escalate with Iran and whether the administration should take the coronavirus more seriously. And each time, he reportedly succeeded in shifting Trump’s thinking -- and federal policy. 

Carlson is particularly adept at winning over the president because of his unique grasp of Trump’s psychology. Trump is a paranoid xenophobe who is fixated on his grievances and cannot handle even the slightest criticism, and Carlson crafts his argument accordingly. He almost never knocks Trump directly for his decisions, instead railing against the purportedly nefarious advisers who must have led the president astray. And his framing of the issues constantly plays to Trump’s hatred of foreigners, Democrats, political correctness, and the media.

Friday’s WHO segment provides a good case study in how Carlson exploits Trump’s weaknesses to shift his opinions.

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Citation From the May 15, 2020, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight

Carlson began his monologue by presenting the potential partial restoration of funding as a surprising decision -- “bet you didn’t see this coming” -- and setting it up as a dispute between “the Trump administration” and Trump himself. He did this by contrasting the pending move with the president’s own harsh criticism of the WHO. 

“Last month, you'll remember, the administration cut off U.S. funding at the president's direction. That amounts to about $400 million a year,” he said. “They did this, as the president explained, because the World Health Organization badly mishandled and lied about the coronavirus pandemic and is of course nauseatingly subservient to the government of China.” 

He then pinned the pending decision on Trump’s advisers, saying, “We're told the president supposedly has agreed to sign the letter, if he hasn't already. It would be interesting to know who convinced him to do that.”

Carlson read from the draft letter, which states that the U.S. agrees to pay as much as China does. He then blamed the State Department, saying this would happen “if the State Department gets its way,” before arguing that the U.S. still won’t have as much influence as China with the WHO.

Next, Carlson reminded his audience -- including the president himself -- why Trump opposed the WHO funding in the first place. “Now, there are certainly many reasons that the president was deeply skeptical of the World Health Organization in the first place and stopped funding it,” he said. “Director Tedros Adhanom has thoroughly disgraced himself and his organization for years, but particularly throughout this coronavirus epidemic.”

In particular, Carlson homed in on the WHO’s criticism of Trump’s travel restrictions. Trump has described his decision to restrict some travel from China as a crucial move which he baselessly claims saved “hundreds of thousands” of American lives, and his political career has been centered in part on castigating claims of racism as “political correctness.” Carlson knows this, and so he sneered that the WHO had “attacked” the restrictions as “unnecessary and needless to say, racist.”

Carlson went on to castigate the WHO for supporting “Chinese propaganda,” which “killed people,” particularly criticizing Tedros’ delay in “calling the virus a pandemic when it clearly was.” In blaming the WHO, Carlson carefully avoided holding Trump accountable for ignoring months of warnings about the virus from U.S. public health agencies, his advisers, and the intelligence community, and ignored Trump’s own praise of the Chinese government’s response in the early weeks of the virus’ spread. Again, when Carlson is trying to influence Trump, he does not criticize him.

Carlson then provided a scapegoat whom he suggested was responsible for the possible partial restoration of WHO funding. “And yet, there is one person who has long, always through thick and thin, been a fervent fan of Tedros, and that's Dr. Anthony Fauci,” he said, pointing a finger at the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a frequent target of the program. After airing a clip of Fauci praising Tedros, Carlson concluded, “Well, doubtless, Dr. Fauci will be thrilled with tonight's news that we're going to continue to fund the World Health Organization.”

After the monologue, Fox medical contributor Dr. Marc Siegel joined Carlson to discuss the potential restoration of WHO funding. For the most part, both stuck to the same talking points from Carlson’s monologue, praising Trump, blaming the pending decision on advisers like Fauci, and highlighting the importance of travel restrictions. “There are people around him whose instincts are reliably bad as his are on target,” Carlson concluded of the president.

But notably, the interview featured a direct appeal from Siegel to Trump to reverse the pending decision. “I have a message for President Trump tonight, too. Please don't sign anything that restores funding to the World Health Organization before there's a huge overhaul of the World Health Organization,” Siegel said. “Yes,” Carlson replied. While many at Fox engage in this sort of direct appeal to the president, Carlson largely avoids that strategy in favor of more subtle commentary, using the second-person to make every viewer a stand-in for Trump. But this time it appears to have succeeded, as Trump’s letter to Tedros demanded “major substantive improvements” before funding could be restored.

Carlson employed similar tactics in trying to convince the president not to further escalate with Iran following the U.S. killing of Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. He argued on his January 2 broadcast that Trump himself is “wary” of war, but may have been “outmaneuvered” by advisers who are “reckless and incompetent,” like former national security adviser John Bolton. And he leaned on the president’s xenophobia, saying that those advisers “are the very same ones demanding that you ignore the invasion of America now in progress from the south.” Carlson’s commentary diverged dramatically from his colleagues, but reportedly shifted the president’s thinking in his direction. 

Likewise, the March 9 Carlson monologue credited with helping convince Trump to briefly take the coronavirus more seriously includes no direct criticism of the president. Even as Carlson said that “people you trust, people you probably voted for, have spent weeks minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem,” he avoided calling Trump out, thus making it far more likely that the president would listen to him. And the monologue was filled with xenophobic references to the “Chinese coronavirus” and attacks on Trump’s frequent target, the “corrupt media establishment.”

Carlson appears to have figured out the secret formula to winning over the president through his television show: No criticism, attacks on his advisers, and a spoonful of racism to help the medicine go down.