Fox News personalities by and large supported President Donald Trump’s confrontation with Iran over the past week. But between the lines, even the most ardent Trump supporters on Fox’s opinion side like Sean Hannity stopped short of encouraging all-out war, though some less prominent on-air figures spoke in favor of more extreme measures. And one of Fox’s biggest opinion hosts has consistently criticized the confrontation with Iran.
The coverage of the Iran showdown on Fox has reflected a conundrum for Trump supporters — whether to cheer his every move regardless or hold him to campaign promises to disentangle the US from conflicts in the Middle East.
In the hours and days following the US strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, Fox hosts rallied in predictable fashion: praising the president as decisive, saying the move had made Americans safer, excoriating Democrats for failing to applaud him. As Iran launched retaliatory strikes on US targets in Iraq Tuesday night, with no direct communication from the president, observers fell even more into the habit of reading the tea leaves of Trump’s favorite channel to see if the administration was marching the country toward war.
Sean Hannity, in particular, gave the impression of having inside information Tuesday when he said on his show, “Their hostility will now be met with the full force of the greatest, most advanced, most sophisticated military this world has ever seen.” Hannity said that those who work in Iran’s oil refineries should be nervous.
But Hannity also said he didn’t want “boots on the ground,” nor did the president. He cast the potential for further escalation as something that would be the fault of the “swamp,” not the president himself. “The president has been clear he’s not putting boots on the ground. Might need a few more intelligence people. Might need to protect very specific areas. And I know the Washington swamp creatures, they like to send our kids to war. Then they put them on the battlefield, then they politicize the war and say never mind. We can’t allow that to ever happen again.”
Hannity paraded a slew of officials to back up that view. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said he had just spoken to Trump, called Iran’s retaliation an “act of war” before stressing that the president “doesn’t want regime change, he wants the behavior of the regime to change” and that his goal would be getting Iran “back into a deterrent mode.” Sen. Ted Cruz said, ”We are not going to get into an extended land war in the Middle East, we’re not gonna do it.”
Sen. Marco Rubio and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said much of the same, each reinforcing the other.
The morning after the strike on Soleimani, Geraldo Rivera challenged the hosts of Fox and Friends for cheering the move, arguing that a war would put US troops in harm’s way. Rivera also pledged to “counsel restraint” on Hannity’s show on Tuesday, before tweeting that his appearance had been canceled. Monday night, Tucker Carlson launched what would become a series of monologues criticizing the administration — though, notably, not Trump personally — for getting involved in yet another Middle Eastern nation. He broke from other Fox personalities in criticizing the entire venture, including the killing of Soleimani, which most others supported.
Fox is divided into news and opinion shows, though the division isn’t always clear-cut (news host Bret Baier, for example, said on Wednesday that critics of Trump’s moves might have “Trump Derangement Syndrome”). He later responded to criticism of that comment on Twitter, saying "Covering things fairly means you point out the good-the bad & the ugly." The network doesn’t impose a uniform editorial line on its shows, with each show operating with a degree of independence.
In this tense week, some minor voices in the Fox world — those trying desperately to win or win back Trump’s attention — have been pushing for war. Sebastian Gorka, a former White House official and conservative commentator, said on Fox Business that “we should welcome” Iran’s retaliation for the killing of Suleimani because “Now there can be no question that Iran is a threat to American national security. You don't have to be an expert in terrorism or irregular warfare to know that Iran is an imminent danger to our country, to our citizens, to our servicemen and women.”
“This president will unleash holy hell on that regime,” Gorka said.
Dan Bongino, a contributor to the network, said on Tuesday, “The mullahs only understand one language, and that's the language of death, sadly. And if death is what we have to give them to stop this, and sadly, that's what we have to do.”
But those with real influence, most notably Carlson, have not. Carlson has become an increasingly influential voice for anti-interventionism on the right and is very popular among the Trump base. And according to a source with knowledge of the conversations, Trump told people that he had watched Carlson’s show and it had affected his view on the Iran situation.
On Wednesday, Trump announced that Iran had backed down and indicated that the US wouldn’t pursue further military action, though it will continue to impose new sanctions.
The early reaction from Fox’s opinion hosts were encouraging for the president.
“I think what Trump has done is he’s blown up the myths and the lies,” Greg Gutfeld said on The Five. “He’s actually really good at this stuff. He’s not impulsive. This is something that was thought through. It was decisive and unpredictable.”