Shortly after the story of Iran's counter-attack broke on Tuesday, Carlson hosted a show that mixed coverage of the story as details became known, emphasizing early reports of a lack of American casualties, and interviews with experts on the Middle East. Some of those guests pointed out the dangers of spiraling escalation.
“I continue to believe the president doesn't want a full-blown war,” Carlson said. “Some around him might, but I think most sober people don't want that.” Trump, who announced his decision not to retaliate against Iran's missile strikes in a nationally televised address 14 hours later, told some close to him that he watched Carlson's show, according to BuzzFeed News. He told confidants in recent days that Carlson's strong advocacy not to escalate the situation in Iran played a role in his decision-making, two White House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Trump keeps a close eye on how his base responds to policy decisions, feeling their beliefs are often reflected and influenced by Fox News hosts. His Twitter feed reflects how he keeps close tabs on Fox, and he tweeted a link to a Carlson piece on Monday night.
The president often consults with Fox News hosts off-air, including Carlson. Carlson was seen among the president's entourage this past summer when he visited the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea. He conducted an interview with Trump that was later shown on Fox.
Following Trump's announcement on Wednesday, Carlson said that “we're back from the brink.” He played a clip of the president's speech where he said that a pause in hostilities between Iran and the United States was a very good thing for the world.
“That's a big claim but in this case it is not an overstatement,” Carlson said. His show moved on to a new cause, in this case encouraging the U.S. to leave neighboring Iraq. He was calm on Tuesday's show, at a time there was breathless coverage elsewhere of the missile attack. A succession of guests threw cold water on the idea of further retaliation. Gil Barndollar of Defense Priorities suggested Americans were kidding themselves if they expected to incite a regime-change movement in Iran. With Kelley Vlahos, executive editor of The American Conservative magazine, they speculated on the role of Democrats and Trump staffers who didn't have the president's best interests in mind in advocating war with Iran. Trump was reminded that he was elected on a pledge to get Americans out of foreign entanglements.
A frequent Carlson guest, retired Army Col. Douglas MacGregor, said a war without public support could not succeed. He said further destabilization in the Middle East would have disastrous effects. “If you destroy Iran, you will get ISIS times one hundred,” he said.
Fox News anchor Bret Baier came on Carlson's show to suggest that the moment was Trump's biggest test as a leader. Carlson's show contrasted with a more bellicose approach by the Fox personality who followed him on the air, Sean Hannity. Hannity, a more loyal Trump supporter, backed the attack that killed Soleimani. While Hannity didn't advocate all-out war with Iran, he suggested that nation was about to be hit with the full force of the American military. “You don't get to do what they did tonight," Hannity said on Tuesday's show.
A.J. Bauer, a New York University professor who is an expert on conservative media, said he could not judge what kind of impact Carlson's program had on Trump's decision. He noted that it was consistent with other times where Trump had resisted more extensive foreign entanglements.
Instead, Bauer found the different opinions expressed by Hannity and Carlson to exemplify how Fox must step carefully with an audience that reflects conflicting strains within the conservative movement, between a hawkish military approach and an “America first” attitude that resists overseas adventurism.
Associated Press White House correspondent Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.