Fox News' weekend programming isn't its calling card, but it may be having a significant impact on the course of the U.S. government's coronavirus response.
Since Sunday night, President Donald Trump has telegraphed newfound sympathy for the idea of a less-aggressive effort to combat the coronavirus once the current 15-day plan expires. Trump tweeted just before midnight on Sunday night: "WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!"
He also spent Monday morning retweeting a bunch of people who suggested that the restrictions on the U.S. economy be lifted after the 15-day period. One of them was a user who recommended, "15 days, then we keep the high risk groups protected as necessary and the rest of us go back to work."
As is often the case, you can trace this increasingly relevant Trump sentiment to Fox News. Trump's comments echo the rhetoric used by weekend host Steve Hilton on Sunday's show, in which he urged the federal government to "flatten the coronavirus curve, but not the economy, before it's too late." Hilton also used the same medical analogy as Trump: "You know, that famous phrase: The cure is worse than the disease?"
"I want to focus tonight on what I think is an even bigger crisis" than coronavirus, Hilton said on Sunday's show. "And that is the economic, social and above-all human costs of the total shutdown policy."
He continued: "Just as the spread of coronavirus creates a curve of the number of people infected, this economic shutdown is creating a curve of the number of people affected - losing their jobs, their homes, their businesses."
And: "You think it is just the coronavirus that kills people? This total economic shutdown will kill people."
Appearing on a panel during the show, Turning Point USA's Charlie Kirk echoed the message. He noted that a majority of cases are currently focused in a few states (although for some reason he mentioned New Jersey and not Washington state, even though the latter has about twice as many cases), and he recommended devoting resources to them and letting other parts of the country go back to work.
"So what I'd like to see is an even heavier focus and more national unity about assisting those areas, and also relieving some of the quarantine and allowing the American entrepreneur to be liberated," Kirk said. "Day 15 comes, some of the other parts of the country that have not been as impacted, because as you talked about there are real economic consequences to these sorts of quarantines that heave been going on."
Fox contributor Lisa Boothe also pointed in the same direction as the host. "Does anyone not think 12 weeks of this is going to absolutely destroy the economy?" she said.
Another lower-profile figure who appears to have Trump's ear on this is Judicial Watch's Tom Fitton. In recent days, Fitton also has argued against a more aggressive shutting down of the economy.
"The only stimulus that will work is opening America back up for business," he tweeted Sunday night. "The consequences of this national shutdown, apart from any pandemic, are dire and will not be materially alleviated by any 'stimulus' and gov't spending."
When Fitton responded to the above Trump tweet by urging the government to "let people out of their homes before they let criminals out of the jails," Trump retweeted it. Trump also promoted another Fitton tweet Monday morning, suggesting he was combing Fitton's feed.
What's remarkable about the argument taking hold with Trump is that it doesn't appear to have been quite so widely trafficked on Fox on this weekend. One of Trump's favorite hosts, Jeanine Pirro, began her show with a pep-rally-esque monologue on bringing the country together to fight a very serious disease. It was a departure from Pirro's early segments on the coronavirus allegedly being politically weaponized against Trump, and it was more in line with what health officials are saying.
On Sunday morning, former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon appeared on the show of Maria Bartiromo - another Trump favorite - and offered a polar-opposite recommendation from Hilton et. al. Bannon urged Trump to instead shut things down completely.
"My recommendation . . . is to drop the hammer," Bannon said. "Don't mitigate the virus. Don't spread the curve. Shatter the curve and go full hammer on the virus right now, with a full shutdown.
"General Patton said a simple plan violently executed today beats a more complicated plan that takes months and months to execute. . . . If you're going to go through hell, let's go through it as fast as possible."
Another Trump ally hoping for a very different course is Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. After this piece posted Monday morning, he tweeted it and sent a pretty clear message to Trump. Graham said, "I'm making my decisions based on healthcare professionals like Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and others, not political punditry."
For now, though, Hilton's message appears to be the one that Trump has internalized - not the one offered by other allies like Graham and even his former top White House aide. Chief White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow indicated later Monday that Trump's tweets are indeed pointing in that direction. "The president is right: The cure can't be worse than the disease," Kudlow said. "And we're going to have to make some difficult trade-offs."
There is, of course, a very valid question about where you set the line on economic consequences versus societal impact, and it's one the government will need to address moving forward. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D, also signaled Monday he's beginning to think about. He said young people might return to work sooner than older ones.
"How do you re-start or transition to a restart of the economy, and how do you dovetail that with a public health strategy?" Cuomo said as he described his thought process.
But there are increasing reports that Trump's positioning is giving health officials fits, as he flirts with lifting the harsher measures that they say are necessary to prevent a fuller health-care crisis. And it's a tension we could have predicted we'd see.
Trump had to be dragged kicking and screaming into acknowledging the threat posed by the coronavirus and initially seemed more worried about its impact on the stock market than anything else. The conspiracy theorist in chief has long abhorred the advice of experts and charted his own path, and there's no guarantee he would continue taking their advice - particularly if he perceived the economic impact as an electoral liability. And if Trump truly thought the coronavirus was overblown before, do we really think he has totally kicked that notion?
The 15-day period expires in about a week. And it's difficult to overstate how important Fox's coverage of this subject will be over the remainder of that time - along with how much Trump's choice of programs and talking heads might shift the course of a pandemic. You never know whose arguments are going to speak to him and which hosts might most effectively tell him what he wants to hear at any given point.