Mediator: ‘Morning Joe’ Row Is Fresh Sign of TV’s Iron Grip on Trump

Mediator: ‘Morning Joe’ Row Is Fresh Sign of TV’s Iron Grip on Trump

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People close to the president will tell you that in fights like this one, his anger doesn’t stem from the criticism aimed at him, but from the fact that it comes from prominent people he once considered friends. That’s going to be hard to avoid given that his relationships with the nation’s top news people started when they were his fellow New York media fixtures, not national journalists covering him as the president.

No relationship better exemplifies the way Mr. Trump lives and breathes the political-media environment than the one between him and the hosts of “Morning Joe,” Mr. Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, both of whom agreed to talk with me about it on Friday.

As has now been well documented, Mr. Trump spent years courting and hobnobbing with the major media personalities who populate his hometown. Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski were among them. After all, they were part of the same network, NBC, where Mr. Trump’s “Apprentice” was such a hit.

Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski don’t deny that something of a friendship developed, although they say it gets overblown.

“Maybe we had lunch with him five or six years ago, but, you know, it was always a run-and-gun thing,” Mr. Scarborough said. “He’d always show up for our book parties; he was always very supportive there. He’d help us with fund-raisers when David Axelrod was raising money for Cure. Donald was very helpful there. We did a lot of stuff with AmeriCares, and we could always count on him being supportive on that.”

During the campaign the relationship had its ups and downs, all of which played out publicly.

Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski were early to proclaim that Mr. Trump had a real shot at the presidency, and they say those forecasts led to criticism that they were too cozy with him. Mr. Trump didn’t help when he once referred to them on their show as “supporters,” although he quickly changed it to “believers.”

Their posture toward him could be plenty harsh and became increasingly so with Mr. Trump’s call for a “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering the United States. They also objected when Mr. Trump questioned whether a judge presiding over a case against Trump University could be fair to him because of his Mexican heritage (Mr. Trump publicly denigrated Mexicans early in his campaign).

“I mean our coverage when the voting started was probably 90 percent negative,” Mr. Scarborough said. “He’s always shocked when he does something offensive and we attack him for it.”

President Trump and his daughter Ivanka at the White House this month.

Credit
Al Drago/The New York Times

But after Mr. Trump won the presidency, the leaf turned again, with Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski urging their audience to give him a chance.

And knowing how closely Mr. Trump watched cable news — and their show, in particular — they told me that they tried at times to use the program as an advisory and learning tool for the incoming commander in chief. (As The Times reported then, Mr. Trump also sought Mr. Scarborough’s advice directly on occasion.)

“It doesn’t seem like he reads much — it seems like he takes in things on TV,” Ms. Brzezinski said. “And we knew that he was very interested in being on the show or being talked about on the show, and so we took our best shot at bringing on the best people: the best admirals, the best retired generals, the best foreign policy minds — the best on both sides of the aisle — just to try to elevate the conversation, I mean, doing what we do, but maybe hoping that he would hear some of it.”

Ms. Brzezinski – the daughter of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser — also said she helped Mr. Trump find a key staff member, his foreign policy adviser, Dina Powell. Ms. Powell, a former Bush administration official, has emerged as a power inside the administration, reassuring worried outsiders.

“Dina Powell was in there because I brought her to Trump Tower and introduced her to Ivanka and Donald,” Ms. Brzezinski said. “I will just say that, on camera and off, we hoped for the best.”

(A person familiar with Ms. Powell’s ascent at the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, confirmed Ms. Brzezinski’s description of the introduction, but said her move to the National Security Council from an informal advisory role with Ivanka Trump came at the behest of H. R. McMaster, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, on the advice of outside experts.)

Things started to deteriorate, Mr. Scarborough said, after Mr. Trump’s first week in office.

The president invited Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski to lunch at the White House, where, Vanity Fair reported, he even offered to officiate at their wedding should they have one (they have since publicly announced their engagement).

“He said, ‘How do you think the first week went?’ and I sort of stammered a little bit, and I said, ‘Well, you know, there have been some problems,”’ Mr. Scarborough said, adding that his critical emphasis was on the president’s first attempt at imposing a travel ban, which had been promptly blocked in court.

“He blanched and he said, ‘You didn’t like how this first week went?’ He started repeating that, and he said, ‘Hey Steve, hey Reince, Joe says he doesn’t think we had a great first week.”’

Then came what he described as a screaming match over the phone a couple of weeks later, after Ms. Brzezinski and Mr. Scarborough mercilessly mocked Mr. Trump’s aide Stephen Miller for his overheated proclamation that the president’s power to impose the travel ban should “not be questioned” by the courts.

“It went back and forth for 20 or 30 minutes and it was a very ugly call,” Mr. Scarborough said. “He was screaming at me saying, ‘Why are you being so tough on this kid — I invited you to lunch at the White House, and you know I could have invited Sean Hannity,’ and I said, ‘Well, invite Sean Hannity — we’re not going to be schmoozed because you gave us some fish.’”

The White House had no comment, but the administration and its supporters have made Mr. Trump’s views clear.

On Thursday, during an interview on Fox News, the Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said of Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski: “They’ve said he has dementia. They’ve said he’s stupid. They’ve called him a goon. They’ve called him a thug. They’ve said he’s mentally ill.” And they have said all that.

For now, Mr. Scarborough no longer has a place at Mr. Trump’s table. Mr. Hannity of Fox News, though, has a singular place at it, providing Mr. Trump a far more flattering television mirror.

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