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Opinion Fox News is now forging U.S. foreign policy

At a Florida rally on Feb. 18, President Trump listed several countries with large numbers of refugees that were recently struck by terror attacks. "You look at what's happening last night in Sweden," Trump said. Swedish authorities are not aware of any such incident that night. (Video: Reuters)

When President Trump mentioned Sweden in scary terms at his Saturday rally, people didn’t know what he was talking about. The topic was immigration and the need for tight restrictions. “Here’s the bottom line,” the president said. “We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.”

Bolding added to highlight a “huh?” moment. Trump seemed to be suggesting that something momentous had taken place in Sweden on Friday night. The free-associating Trump then moved on to well-known terror attacks: “You look at what’s happening in Brussels. You look at what’s happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris.”

Had something similar happened on Friday night in Sweden? No. Nothing remotely similar.

What had happened was that “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” on Fox News, had aired on Friday night a pre-taped segment with filmmaker Ami Horowitz on the impact of Sweden’s lenient approach to immigration. “Perhaps no nation on Earth is more committed to accepting foreign migrants and refugees than Sweden,” said Fox News’s Ed Henry in introducing the Carlson-Horowitz interview. Henry was careful to pre-scare the network’s viewers: “If these arrivals aren’t able to work, they are at least able to commit crimes. Quite a few of them, in fact,” he said.

That intro teed up an interview between host Tucker Carlson and Horowitz. “The crime statistics are the crime statistics,” said Horowitz. “They are not close, they are open to the public and they do show this incredible surge of violence. What may actually be the problem, they often … try to cover up some of these crimes that, for example, there has been a rash of these rapes in the music festivals, and they would cover up as far as they could who the perpetrators were or if actually rapes had actually reoccurred.”

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As this Daily Beast article makes clear, the question of Swedish music-festival criminality and a “coverup” relating to the perpetrators is a complicated affair. After one set of incidents, for example, the police implicated “foreign youths” in the sexual assaults, only to later walk back that assessment. “The wording was unfortunate and we will take that to heart,” said a law-enforcement official. For a look at Swedish crime statistics, try Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones.

Not far behind the question of criminality was the welfare state. Asked by Carlson about the sort of life that asylum-seekers could find in Sweden, Horowitz responded: “They live great, Tucker. One of the most generous financial programs that they have in terms of the amount of money they are giving to them, the housing benefits, the cash benefits, so you have these — but they have … these zones, areas the cops won’t even enter because it is too dangerous for them.”

The Carlson-Horowitz discussion finds some support in this lengthy Foreign Policy story by James Traub. Titled “The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth,” it quotes a border policeman criticizing the country’s openness to refugees: “Last summer, my grandmother almost starved to death in the hospital, but the migrants get free food and medical care. I think a government’s job is to take care of its own people first, and then, if there’s anything left over, you help other people.” That sentiment is part of what Traub describes as growing wariness among Swedes about the country’s ability to integrate the newcomers.

However — and this is critical — the debate in Sweden doesn’t obsess over terrorism, according to Traub. “I arrived in the country days after the Paris attacks,” writes Traub, “and I expected to hear a pitched battle over the dangers to national security posed by the newcomers. Scarcely anyone raised the issue. Sweden has not suffered a serious attack on its soil; the national mood could change very quickly if it did. But the issue that is raised — in Sweden as in Germany, Hungary, and all over Europe — is national integration. How will adding 150,000 refugees from very different cultures change Sweden?”

A different spin prevailed on Carlson’s show. Asked to assess the longer-term outlook for Sweden, Horowitz said, in part, “Sweden had its first terrorist Islamic attack not that long ago. So they are now getting a taste of what we have been seeing across Europe already.” Actually, that’s a stretch. In 2010, an Islamist suicide bomber killed himself and wounded two other people in Stockholm — nothing remotely like events in terror-plagued European cities. A police officer interviewed for the Horowitz film, to boot, is claiming that his input was mischaracterized: ”It was supposed to be about crime in high-risk areas. Areas with high crime rates. There wasn’t any focus on migration or immigration.”

As this blog argued last week, Trump would have been far better off reading something about terrorism and refugee policy in Europe — instead of allowing Fox News to decide the content of his nightly briefing.

Whatever impressions Trump may have collected from the report, he clearly appears to regard it as an educational moment. Have another look at the transcript from Trump’s Florida rally: “You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden.” We have no doubt that he intended to refer to Carlson’s show, yet he didn’t bother to insert the specifics for his audience. From his very own cable-news bubble, he appears to have assumed that others, of course, were perfectly familiar with a throwaway segment on a Friday night show.

They weren’t at all, which is why Trump on Sunday had to clear things up:

Last week, White House Deputy Communications Director Raj Shah told this blog that it’s “completely false” to assume that cable news serves as the president’s “sole or primary source of … news, briefings or education/background on policy, national security matters, etc.” Okay, though it appears to be, at least, the primary source of Trump’s worldview on the impact of refugees on Swedish society.

On Monday morning’s edition of “Fox & Friends,” Carlson explored both sides of the issue that Trump sent flying into the holiday weekend: “Presidents ought to be precise in what they say. There should be no question about what their meaning is and that applies to this president, too, for sure,” said the host. “On the other hand, it seems like we may be missing the point of the story, which is there has been a massive social cost associated with the refugee policies and immigration policies of Western Europe. I was in Europe yesterday and I can tell you what you already know from watching the news, which is there is a lot of social dislocation as a result of this. The crime rate in all these countries has risen, but so has the political turmoil.”

“Stupid” is how Carlson characterized media reports expressing astonishment over Trump’s words at the Saturday rally. “Good for Trump and good for anybody who raises at least that question,” said Carlson, referring to the debate over the impact of opening a country to refugees. Responding to those same media reports, Trump tweeted today:

Mind the sequence: First, Trump watches a Fox News segment; then he repeats the conclusions of that segment at an anticipated rally; then he discloses where he sourced the material; then he scoffs at the backlash, insulting an ally in the process. Ergo, Fox News is making U.S. foreign policy.