In one of the creepiest incidents, if true, in the annals of presidential intimidation—arguably on a par with Richard Nixon’s notorious “plumbers unit” breaking into Vietnam whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office—President Donald Trump stands accused of weaponizing the National Enquirer against his ardent critics Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.
In early June, the Trump-admiring supermarket tabloid indeed published a story headlined: “‘Morning Joe’ Sleazy Cheating Scandal! Cohosts were RISING EARLY TOGETHER before marriages ended!”
It doesn’t take a wild imagination to wonder if the president somehow inspired the hit piece. After all, he tweeted last August: “Some day, when things calm down, I'll tell the real story of @JoeNBC and his very insecure long-time girlfriend, @morningmika. Two clowns!”
The president is a longtime pal of David Pecker, chief executive of the Enquirer’s parent company American Media Inc. as well as a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, who acknowledges putting his tabloid at the service of Trump’s campaign last year, according to a Pecker profile in the current New Yorker.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and strategic communications director Hope Hicks didn’t respond to text messages seeking comment. A third presidential aide scoffed via an eye-rolling text: “The things you chase and the ppl you believe…”
But the president himself, who periodically claims to ignore Scarborough and Brzezinski’s cable television commentary, confirmed in a tweet Friday morning that something involving himself, the MSNBC cohosts and the Enquirer had occurred.
But he disputed their narrative that White House aides advised them that the Enquirer story would never run if only Scarborough called the president to apologize. Scarborough said he refused.
“Watched low rated @Morning_Joe for first time in long time. FAKE NEWS. He called me to stop a National Enquirer article. I said no! Bad show,” Trump claimed.
MSNBC’s It Couple, who in early May announced plans to marry each other after a decade on the air, interrupted a vacation Friday to appear on their Morning Joe program and relate their chilling anecdote.
Several weeks ago, they said, Enquirer operatives surveilled them and harassed Brzezinski’s close friends and teenage daughters to prepare a scandalous story about their relationship, while three top White House aides repeatedly phoned Scarborough to advise that the 45th president would have the Enquirer story killed if only Scarborough and Brzezinski said they regretted their negative coverage.
“We got a call that, ‘hey, the National Enquirer is going to run a really negative story against you guys’,” Scarborough recounted, citing a phone call from a Trump White House aide. “And Donald is friends with…the guy that runs the National Enquirer”—a reference to Pecker.
“And they said, ‘If you call the president up and you apologize for your coverage, then he will pick up the phone and basically spike the story,’” Scarborough continued. “I will just say three people at the very top of the administration called me, and the response to it was, ‘Are you kidding me? I don’t know what they have to run a story. I’m not going to do it.’”
Without identifying his three White House callers (although media outlets including the Daily Beast have tagged Jared Kushner as prominent among them), the 54-year-old former Republican congressman continued: “The calls kept coming, and they kept coming. They were like, ‘Call him. You need to call. Please call. Joe, just pick up the phone and call him!’ ”
Brzezinski added: “Let me explain what they [the Enquirer] were threatening. They were calling my children. They were calling close friends of mine. And they were pinning the story on my ex-husband—who would absolutely never do that.”
Last year, Brzezinski, 50, quietly divorced local television journalist Jim Hoffer, the father of their two daughters.
“I knew immediately that it was a lie and that they had nothing,” Brzezinski continued. “And these calls persisted for quite some time, and then Joe had the conversations he had with the White House, where they said ‘Oh, this could go away.’”
Morning Joe regular Willie Geist chimed in: “I just want to be very clear here. The National Enquirer is harassing your children—your daughters, who are teenagers—and Joe, in turn, is getting calls from the White House.”
Scarborough recounted: “Also, I was at Mika’s house for a few minutes and came out and there was a guy in a van that was staked out there, watching. And it was clear that he was from a tabloid, and he started asking questions. And when this started happening, that was when I started getting calls from the White House saying… ‘You need to call the president.’”
Mika said: “And our response through talking it through to my ex-husband, talking to Joe, talking to my kids, was ‘Screw it! Let ‘em run it!’”
“Go ahead and run it,” Scarborough agreed. “We’re not calling.”
NBC News officials were consulting closely with Scarborough and Brzezinski, along with outside lawyers, concerning the Enquirer’s activities starting in early May.
Scarborough added that during the Republican primary campaign, when he regularly chatted with Trump, the then-candidate would frequently boast about his close ties to the tabloid.
“Donald Trump called me during the campaign and bragged about his friend who runs the National Enquirer. And he always said, ‘Have you seen the Ben Carson story?...Have you seen that story in the Enquirer?’ And then he would talk about it.”
In October 2015, the Enquirer ran a story headlined “Bungling Surgeon Ben Carson Left Sponge In Patient’s Brain!”
Citing the Enquirer’s JFK assassination-Cruz hit piece, Scarborough continued, “There were all these stories that were planted in the National Enquirer for people who Donald Trump wanted to attack, and then he would talk about it on the campaign trail.”
The Enquirer has even signed on to the Barack Obama birther conspiracy theories that helped Trump launch his unlikely political career—and continues to push them months after their hero discarded them as no longer useful.
A story this past March was headlined: “FAMILY BETRAYAL! Barack Obama Kenyan Birth Certificate—Exposed Ex-Prez's half-brother releases bombshell document as Trump's revenge!”
The Enquirer broke with its apolitical tradition last year and warmly endorsed Trump for president. And it was the Enquirer—which had eagerly splashed Trump’s various personal scandals over the years before Pecker took it over in 1999 and stopped the practice—that “embraced Trump with sycophantic fervor,” writes the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin.
The tabloid repeatedly published take-downs of Trump rivals Ted Cruz (at one point linking the Texas senator’s Cuban father to the JFK assassination) and Hillary Clinton (calling the Democratic nominee a “sociopath” with “failing health and a deadly thirst for power”).
American Media Inc.’s public relations official didn’t respond to voicemail and text messages. But Dylan Howard, American Media Inc.’s chief content officer, issued this statement: “At the beginning of June, we accurately reported a story that recounted the relationship between Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, the truth of which is not in dispute. At no time did we threaten either Joe or Mika or their children in connection with our reporting on the story. We have no knowledge of any discussions between the White House and Joe and Mika about our story, and absolutely no involvement in those discussions.”