On Friday, MSNBC hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough made the explosive claim that three of President Donald Trump’s most senior White House aides “warned” the couple that the tabloid The National Enquirer would publish dirt on them unless they “begged” the president to intervene.
The Morning Joe co-hosts declined to name the multiple White House officials involved in this bizarre, ongoing feud. But one of those “top White House staff members” was senior advisor and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, two White House officials confirmed to The Daily Beast.
According to these officials, Kushner and Scarborough had spoken “many weeks ago” regarding a then upcoming negative Enquirer article on Scarborough and Brzezinski. Scarborough had “calmly sought” advice from Kushner, who “recommended he speak with the president.”
But White House sources’ accounts of the conversation differed from Scarborough’s description and suggestions of more sinister interactions. No hostile threat or attempt at blackmail was made, according to these officials.
“This is getting blown up on Twitter and elsewhere as some kind of blackmail operation,” one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely, said. “The truth is far more mundane. In this case, Joe was talking to Jared about his [bad] relationship with the president and a Enquirer hit piece he was uneasy about.”
The president has close ties to the Enquirer, which endorsed him during the 2016 campaign, and relentlessly attacked his enemies. Republican pollster Dick Morris, who advised Trump during the campaign, joined the tabloid last summer as its “chief political commentator and correspondent.”
The story in question, published by the Enquirer early this month and headlined “Joe & Mika: TV Couple’s Sleazy Cheating Scandal,” claimed that the Morning Joe co-hosts had “started hooking up while married to other people” and “used ironclad divorce deals to keep their dirty secret!”
Dylan Howard, the vice president of National Enquirer parent company American Media Inc., denied any knowledge of White House attempts to elicit an apology from Scarborough in exchange for spiking the story.
“We accurately reported a story that recounted the relationship between Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, the truth of which is not in dispute,” Howard wrote in a statement posted on the Enquirer’s website on Friday. “At no time did we threaten either Joe or Mika or their children in connection with our reporting on the story.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Friday morning that he was “not aware” of efforts by senior White House officials to elicit an apology from Scarborough to Trump for Morning Joe’s coverage of the president.
Neither Spicer nor deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders responded to follow-up questions from The Daily Beast on Friday morning, including a request for comment on Kushner’s conversation with Scarborough. Brzezinski and Scarborough declined to comment for this story.
Kushner and Scarborough have a longstanding relationship, and the cable host has frequently complimented the young real estate mogul and praised his ability to steer White House policy in a positive direction. “Jared Kushner being in the White House is critical,” Scarborough wrote in December. “As was said of FDR, Jared has a first rate temperament.”
When Scarborough and Brzezinski went public with their long-rumored romantic relationship, revealing that they were engaged in a May interview with Vanity Fair, Scarborough said Kushner had even offered to officiate their wedding.
Trump’s relationship with the Morning Joe co-hosts was a constant media subplot during his meteoric political rise. During the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump was a frequent Morning Joe guest, and Scarborough a media outlier in his occasional praise for the brash outsider—or at least his recognition of the political trends that fueled his ascent.
The relationship shifted dramatically in early 2016 as the show, and Scarborough in particular, grew more critical of candidate Trump, who in turn began lashing out. By August 2016, Trump was tweeting about the rumored romantic relationship between Scarborough and Brzezinski.
On Thursday, Trump’s public attacks reached a new level with a pair of tweets directed at “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and “Psycho Joe.” His comments about Brzezinski in particular—the president recalled her “bleeding badly from a face-lift” as she and Scarborough begged to attend his New Year’s Eve party—drew condemnations even from Trump allies in the political and media worlds.
The feud between Trump and the cable news hosts stretched into its second day on Friday, when the president tweeted reaction to a Washington Post column in which Scarborough and Brzezinski accused White House staff of threatening them with a National Enquirer hit piece.
“Top White House staff members warned that the National Enquirer was planning to publish a negative article about us unless we begged the president to have the story spiked,” they wrote in a Washington Post column. “We ignored their desperate pleas.”
Scarborough made similar allegations on his MSNBC program on Friday morning. "We got a call that, 'Hey, the National Enquirer is going to run a negative story against you guys'…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 this story," Scarborough recalled.
“I had three people at the very top of the administration calling me,” the host continued. “The calls kept coming, and kept coming.”
“That’s blackmail,” another Morning Joe panelist, off-camera and shocked, added.
That led to a Trump tweet labeling Morning Joe “fake news,” and claiming that Scarborough had reached out to him directly in an unsuccessful attempt to sink the Enquirer story. Scarborough responded with allusions to texts and phone records of the exchanges with White House officials. “Why do you keep lying about things that are so easily disproven?” he wrote on Twitter. “What is wrong with you?”
Among some of the president’s closest advisers, both within and without the West Wing, there is a clear and growing desire to move on and discuss anything but the pettiness of the Trump-Scarborough feud.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a top informal Trump adviser who rarely holds back in conversations with reporters, quickly ended a phone conversation when asked about the drama unfolding on Twitter. “No comment,” Gingrich interjected as soon as The Daily Beast mentioned the words “Morning Joe.”
“Goodbye,” he said, before abruptly hanging up.
—with additional reporting by Andrew Kirell