President Donald Trump, via his son-in-law Jared Kushner, encouraged his pals at the notorious supermarket tabloid National Enquirer in 2017 to push the debunked conspiracy theory that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough murdered a female congressional aide, Lori Klausutis, knowledgeable sources confirmed to The Daily Beast.
More recently, the president has displayed a bizarre obsession with the allegations, even bringing it up Wednesday morning amid nationwide protests, chaos, and growing unrest, declaring on Fox News radio that he thought Scarborough “got away with murder.” Since last month, officials on Trump’s campaign and in his White House have also devoted time and resources to weighing in on the Scarborough smear.
Trump’s desire to trash the Morning Joe co-host long predates his recent and frequent ravings about the conspiracy theory while governing a country facing a global pandemic, a shattered economy, and widespread civil unrest over the death of George Floyd. In fact, the president attempted to plant the false and inflammatory tabloid story during the first year of his presidency, coinciding with a complete breakdown in his once warm relationship with the MSNBC host—a media feud that included accusations of a blackmail conspiracy and the president alleging that Scarborough’s wife and co-host Mika Brzezinski had gotten a botched, bloody facelift.
Even in late 2016, there was still a glimmer of friendship between Trump and the two longtime MSNBC personalities, as the future president would give the pair a personal tour of his prized campaign “war room,” even as he’d gleefully gossip behind their backs to random aides about the couple’s supposed Manhattan love nest.
By mid-2017, the president’s private chatter about Brzezinski and Scarborough had grown darker and more vengeful.
According to two people with direct knowledge of the matter, it was around this time that Trump started asking White House aides if he should tweet about “the dead girl”—as one of the people recalled the president phrasing it—to get back at his friend-turned-foe “Psycho Joe.” Multiple advisers cautioned against doing so, arguing it was, at the very least, not worth it. For the most part, the president ended up resisting his initial impulses, though he would briefly and vaguely reference the death in a tweet sent months later in November 2017.
While Trump remained mostly silent in public, he was more active behind the scenes. His son-in-law and senior White House adviser asked the National Enquirer to pursue the story.
“Trump through Kushner was begging [Enquirer publisher David] Pecker to do something about Scarborough [and Klausutis’ death],” a person with direct knowledge of the situation told The Daily Beast. “The Enquirer started working on a story at their behest.”
American Media Inc. did not respond to requests for comment. Various White House spokespeople and administration officials would not comment on the record for this story. However, one White House official simply stated, “This is utterly and completely false. Jared did not speak to the president or the Enquirer about this and any assertion to the contrary is ludicrous on its face.”
Still, as The Daily Beast reported in December 2018, shortly after the 2016 election, Kushner was specifically tasked with being the primary conduit between the Trump White House and Pecker, whose company, according to federal prosecutors in 2018, admitted to making a $150,000 hush-money payment “in concert with” Team Trump. During the presidential transition period, Kushner had replaced Michael Cohen, the president’s now-former lawyer and fixer, as a main go-between for Pecker to Trump.
According to multiple people familiar with the situation, editors at the National Enquirer tasked reporters in the spring of 2017 with attempting to publish the unfounded conspiracy theory that Scarborough was involved in the 2001 death of his Florida congressional district staffer Klausutis.
But even the supermarket tabloid could not establish any truth to the smear. Despite weeks of investigation into the matter in 2017 to try and confirm a link between the woman's death and Scarborough, the people with knowledge of the matter said reporters were ultimately unsuccessful in finding even threadbare proof to run a story.
“I remember we were looking into it and the story didn’t materialize,” said a person who worked at American Media Inc. (the Enquirer’s publisher) at the time. “We reached out to experts, and they dismissed theories that she’d met with foul play or Joe had anything to do with her death. We reached out to her family. The story never went anywhere.”
“If there was something there we would’ve bit into it and stayed with it,” this tabloid veteran insisted, requesting anonymity owing to AMI’s notoriously ironclad non-disclosure agreements and reported retaliation against staffers who have publicly spoken out about the company.
“The basic direction we were given by the editors was since you’ve gone left and focused on the dead girl and that hasn’t been fruitful now go right and focus on the affair,” the ex-staffer recalled, referring to Scarborough’s romantic relationship with his co-host Brzezinski, which was the subject of rumors before the pair finally made it public following her divorce. “It was clear there was an agenda driving it, but it wasn’t clear to us by who and what the big picture was.”
The Enquirer reporters were unable to meet the tabloid’s notoriously low bar for publication even after consulting with tabloid-friendly experts such as forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht and private investigator Paul Huebl, who once claimed to the supermarket rag that actor Verne Troyer, best known for portraying “Mini Me” in the Austin Powers film series, was murdered after cops ruled his death a suicide.
The media-friendly Dr. Wecht—known for consulting on high-profile lawsuits, giving expert testimony in court, and generously dispensing his opinions on all manner of celebrity causes of death including last year casting doubt on Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide—recalled to The Daily Beast having received a phone call from a National Enquirer reporter requesting that he review the autopsy report from the Florida medical examiner’s office and other records surrounding the 2001 death of Scarborough’s staffer.
Wecht said that he concluded the death was accidental and due to medical causes, not a homicide. Authorities who investigated the case in 2001 ruled that Klausutis died in Scarborough’s Florida office after fainting as a result of an undiagnosed heart condition.
“I remember the case,” the 89-year-old Wecht told The Daily Beast, adding that he had just performed six autopsies within the past few days—one of which, he said, was a complicated procedure involving the tracing of multiple gunshot wounds and retrieving the bullets. “The woman collapsed, had a head injury and a heart problem. I stand by what I said at the time. With the autopsy material in front of me, I had no basis to change my mind, and the opinion I expressed at that time are those that I can confirm to you today.”
And Huebl, a private investigator and one of the tabloid’s occasional go-to experts, said in an interview that an Enquirer reporter also contacted him for his opinion on the staffer’s death, and informed him that Klausutis was working for Scarborough at the time and wondered if the autopsy report could support a homicide charge. Like Wecht, Huebl concluded that the death was not criminal.
“I would have been very uncomfortable if anybody had been charged with murder or manslaughter or second-degree murder on that case,” said Huebl, a former Chicago cop. “I’d say no, that’s bullshit, it’s wrong.”
Huebl said he was under the impression that the tabloid—which, in 2016, “reported” on links between Rafael Cruz, father of Trump’s then-top GOP primary rival Ted Cruz, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—was hoping for a completely different answer.
“The Enquirer is always looking for sensationalism,” he said. “And they’re disappointed when you can’t come up with a sensational answer for them. And sometimes they got a little fast and loose with the things that I did give them. You can speculate all you want and the Enquirer is essentially putting a little gasoline on the fire.”
Huebl said he was unaware of any political motivation in the Enquirer’s apparent attempt to enlist his participation in a story falsely accusing Scarborough of murder. “If you call me up and you want my opinion, if I think you’re doing it for political purposes, or I smell that, our conversation is over.”
An individual with knowledge of the situation recalled that “almost the same day” as the Klausutis murder story was ditched—as the publication couldn’t find any corroboration—they pivoted their resources to a story about the Morning Joe hosts’ affair.
“The Enquirer were fishing around for dirt on Joe and Mika and they had been digging into the murder allegation Trump was pushing. There was no reason for them to be doing stories about Joe and Mika—they are not George and Amal [Clooney], they are not names to readers. They do not sell magazines,” the person said. “It was disgraceful what went on. It was clearly payback.”
Scarborough and Brzezinski became targets of the tabloid after openly and repeatedly criticizing Trump on their morning cable TV show, after years of featuring him as a commentator and “friend of the show.” The deeply toxic feud led to the couple at one point accusing the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., of a “blackmail plot.”
Scarborough and Brzezinski both declined to comment on this story. But the pair have spoken privately with Twitter in recent weeks, imploring the company to remove Trump’s posts suggesting that the former congressman was somehow involved in his then-employee’s death. According to people familiar with one call, Twitter representatives reiterated some of the company’s public claims, and suggested that the president’s allegations may not technically violate the platform's terms of service.
Still, many of Trump's allies in conservative media have implored him publicly to stop the Scarborough bashing. The Wall Street Journal and New York Post editorial boards, typically some of the loudest center-right supporters of the president's actions, have admonished Trump for pushing the unfounded theory.
Some of Trump’s other friends in conservative media who remain close to Scarborough have largely remained on the sidelines. “I hate seeing them both so angry at each other,” Sinclair host Eric Bolling, a personal friend to both the MSNBC star and the president, told The Daily Beast. “Like watching your best friends slug it out on a huge stage.”
To others in Trumpworld, it wasn’t quite as sad, but instead reeked of kayfabe. “Their tit-for-tat unifies both camps. Cable news keeps viewer loyalty by outraging them and this does the trick,” said former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), a current Trump surrogate who has known both Scarborough and the president for years. Asked if he thought it was politically wise for Trump to keep elevating the dead-intern smear, Kingston replied that the president “keeps it interesting. And I think it’s his way of pointing out the holier-than-thou hypocrisy of the cable-news anchors.”
MSNBC insiders say network higher-ups haven’t made a serious effort to privately lobby the White House against sharing the conspiracy theory, noting the absurdity of trying to reason with a president who seems adamant in pushing the claims regardless of their validity.