In the upper echelons of the Trump administration, hawkish voices on Iran predominate—most notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton. But as tensions between the U.S. and Iran have escalated over the last few weeks, there’s been another, far different voice in the president’s ear: that of Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
A source familiar with the conversations told The Daily Beast that, in recent weeks, the Fox News host has privately advised Trump against taking military action against Iran. And a senior administration official said that during the president’s recent conversations with the Fox primetime host, Carlson has bashed the more “hawkish members” of his administration.
While some Fox News hosts have argued that a conflict with Iran would be justified, Carlson has consistently criticized U.S. military intervention abroad, particularly in the Middle East. In recent weeks, he has questioned whether war with Iran would be “in anyone’s interest.” Last month, he publicly chided Bolton, saying he was intentionally escalating tensions, and that a potential conflict would “be like Christmas, Thanksgiving, his birthday wrapped into one.”
During a Monday night segment devoted to the recent attack on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, Carlson invoked the faulty intelligence leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Fox News host compared Pompeo’s “misplaced certainty” that Iran attacked the tankers to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s now-discredited claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
“We’re still paying a price for that,” Carlson said.
In May 2018, the Trump administration began rolling out a maximum pressure campaign directed at Iran. Their stated goal was to damage the Iranian economy, limit the government’s ability to fund foreign terrorist groups, and force Iran back to the negotiating table for a second nuclear deal. And in April, the administration rolled out a series of hawkish moves that had made prior administrations blanch: designating Iran’s military as a terrorist organization and instituting sanctions on all Iranian oil exports, no exceptions.
In response to those moves, U.S. intel officials said, the Iranian government pushed back, causing further escalated tensions. One source familiar with the intel said the chief of Iran’s Quds Force, its military’s covert action arm, had directed proxy fighters in Iraq to prepare for a fight with the United States. Pompeo later directed the evacuation of some civilian U.S. officials from Iraq, though the nature and scope of the threat wasn’t clear.
And then came the tanker attacks. Late last week, two oil tankers moving through the Strait of Hormuz—one Norwegian and the other Japanese—were attacked. There were no casualties, and no evidence of oil spills. But the images of smoke pouring out of the sides of the hulking ships shocked the world and sent oil prices soaring. The Trump administration and the British government quickly attributed the attacks to the Iranians. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas initially said that U.S. evidence was “not enough” to show Iran was responsible for the attack. But Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday that there was “strong evidence” pointing to Iran.
Some Trump allies responded to the tanker attacks with calls for military action. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, told CBS’ Margaret Brennan that the moves justify military retaliation.
The president, meanwhile, took a vastly different tone—less Cotton, more Carlson. In a Time interview published Monday evening, he dismissed the oil tanker attacks, saying, “So far, it’s been very minor.”
The president has made no secret of his affinity for Carlson.
Since taking office, Trump has live-tweeted episodes of Tucker Carlson Tonight on at least 20 separate occasions, often promoting or directly quoting the eponymous host or his guests.
“Trump thinks Tucker is one of the sharpest minds on television—[Trump has said], ‘So smart, a thinking man’s show,’” one knowledgeable source told The Daily Beast in August.
It wasn’t always like this. In a piece Carlson penned for Politico, published in January 2016, the Fox host described a voicemail he recalled receiving from Trump, back in his celebrity-businessman days.
“About 15 years ago, I said something nasty on CNN about Donald Trump’s hair,” Carlson wrote. “I can’t now remember the context, assuming there was one. In any case, Trump saw it and left a message the next day. ‘It’s true you have better hair than I do,’ Trump said matter-of-factly. ‘But I get more pussy than you do.’”
“Click,” Carlson wrote.
—Adam Rawnsley and Andrew Kirell contributed reporting.