On Monday morning, Bassam Rifai, a political adviser at the Syrian American Council, appeared on the Fox News program Happening Now to urge President Donald Trump to escalate in Syria in the aftermath of the reported deadly chemical weapons attack.
“I would be surprised if I didn’t see any strikes,” Rifai said. “The president needs to take swift and decisive action right now.”
Then he turned to face the camera.
“President Trump, I am speaking to you directly,” he continued. “Do not take the same mistakes that President Obama had made… What we need to do right now is to take out... Assad’s air force.”
When asked Monday afternoon if he wanted to appear on Fox News on Monday, instead of CNN or MSNBC, to try to get a message to the president—a habitual Fox watcher—Rifai simply told The Daily Beast, “Yes, that’s correct.”
Though Trump had multiple meetings on Syria with senior administration officials on Monday, Rifai was correct in assessing that what the president watches on Fox News can often influence his actions and rhetoric as much, if not more so, than the counsel of his top West Wing aides.
And Rifai was hardly alone on the Fox airwaves. In fact, several personalities and guests on Fox & Friends—perhaps the most influential TV show on the face of the planet right now—have been pushing Trump since Sunday morning to order another military strike against the Bashar al-Assad regime as the remarkably brutal Syrian civil war continues unabated.
On Sunday morning, less than half an hour before Trump condemned the attack on Twitter, Fox & Friends ran a segment on the “DOZENS DEAD IN SYRIA.” Fox News correspondent Gillian Turner ended the segment by stating, “All eyes now, guys, will now be on President Trump to see what his response is... After a chemical attack last year, he ordered airstrikes that decimated a Syrian airbase, a move that garnered praise from America’s allies around the world.”
Later that morning, after venting on Twitter about Hillary Clinton, the FBI, and The Washington Post, the president tweeted, “Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price…to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!”
President Trump added, knocking his predecessor, “If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!”
But of course, the carnage has continued. Assad pledged back in 2013 to give up his stockpile of deadly chemical weapons—including tons of the nerve agent sarin.
U.S. officials now believe that Assad’s forces likely used sarin in its gruesome assault on the Damascus suburb of Douma, although those officials stress that they don’t have anything approaching definitive proof yet. After previous sarin attacks, the U.S. was able to intercept calls between Syrian military officers discussing the chemical strikes, or obtain samples of the suspect nerve agent.
“Most of what we know is in the press. But what’s in the press is pretty damning,” one U.S. official told The Daily Beast. “The majority of those fatalities”—with mouths foaming and pupils the size of pinpricks—“look like they were sarin-induced.”
And those attacks, which left dozens dead and hundreds injured, appear to have been effective. Before the bombing, the Syrian military was negotiating with the rebel group Jayish al-Islam. After the bombing, the group’s fighters in Douma all-but-surrendered.
Some pictures of the aftermath seemed to show barrel bombs with the industrial chemical chlorine. The U.S. official said it’s possible Assad’s military used both chlorine and sarin in the attack.
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” the official added. “They’re hitting people in Douma with everything they have.”
It wasn’t too long ago that Trump took a softer approach toward Assad; during the presidential campaign, Trump said, “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS.”
On Sunday, Fox & Friends welcomed lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a liberal law professor who over the past year has frequently bashed President Trump’s legal antagonists, who also told viewers (perhaps one viewer in particular) that, “well, I think the president has no choice. He must respond. And I think he will respond. He won’t make the tragic mistake that President Obama, for whom I voted, made... The United States has to do something about it. We’re the only game in town.”
Numerous White House officials and sources close to Trump have told The Daily Beast that one of the most effective ways to compel the president to do something is tell him that he could be strong where Obama was weak, and that he can do right where his predecessor did nothing.
When asked by a host asked if such a response should include airstrikes or anything similar, Dershowitz replied that last year’s strikes on Assad’s Shayrat air base in response to a prior attack was “the minimum of what [Trump] has to do.” Most U.S. action against Assad must be done “in the name of humanity,” Dershowitz said, a sentiment that mirrors what Trump would say at the White House the following day.
“I think this president will stand strong… and I hope he can stop this guy [Assad],” Dershowitz said. “Nobody else has stopped him.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a former Trump adversary who has since become the president’s golfing buddy, appeared on Monday’s edition of Fox & Friends to throw in his two cents and convey his pro-interventionist message to Trump.
“I think now he is a legitimate war criminal in the eyes of the international community, and that Assad and his inner circle should be considered war criminals, legitimate military targets,” the senator said. “If you have the opportunity to take him out, you should. You should ground his air force. You should destroy his air force.”
Graham’s ex-colleague, former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), swung by Fox & Friends to say “I appreciate President Trump’s outrage at the use of chemical weapons, and now I think we and our allies have to follow up and it ought to be strong—we should hit their military.”
“I think everything should be on the table,” Lieberman also noted—something with which President Trump concurs.
Not everyone on Fox News was beating the drums of war, like Tucker Carlson.
“Leaders on both sides of the aisle in Congress, in the media and our intelligence services and virtually every overfunded think tank in Washington have suddenly aligned tonight on a single point of agreement: America must go to war in Syria immediately,” Tucker Carlson said at the top of his primetime Fox News show Monday night.
Expressing “skepticism,” the host added, “All the geniuses tell us that Assad killed those children, but do they really know that? Of course they don’t really know that. They are making it up. They have no real idea what happened.”
On Monday, the president told reporters that his administration would decide in the next “24 to 48 hours” how to respond to the Assad regime, and added that “nothing is off the table.”
—with additional reporting by Andrew Kirell