Most media reports have portrayed Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski as aggrieved victims of Donald Trump’s Thursday Twitter tantrum. It can’t be pleasant to be attacked so personally by the president, but Scarborough and Brzezinski are fighting back. On their MSNBC show “Morning Joe” on Friday and in an op-ed column in the Washington Post entitled “President Trump Is Not Well,” they chastised Trump for his vicious and vulgar attacks on her appearance, for referring to her as “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and him as “Psycho Joe.” They denied Trump’s claim that she had plastic surgery and that she was “bleeding badly from a face-lift” when she and Scarborough visited Trump’s private club at Mar-a-Lago in Florida last year. They also levied a serious charge that Trump tried to blackmail them by threatening a negative story about the couple in the National Enquirer unless they asked Trump (who is close to the tabloid’s publisher) to have the story killed.
America is aghast but hardly surprised by Trump’s latest social media assault. It is totally consistent with his regular attacks on women, his efforts to bully and intimidate his critics, and his narcissistic need to get revenge on anyone who does not swear uncompromising loyalty to him.
Understandably, Brzezinski and Scarborough are attracting lots of sympathy for being the targets of Trump’s vile comments. Democrats have used this episode to remind Americans about the president’s unhinged personality, his disrespect for women, and how he demeans the office and embarrasses the country with his crude and repugnant remarks. Republicans have been relatively tepid in rebuking Trump. They have sought to distance themselves from his comments against the influential MSNBC co-hosts and particularly his sexist remarks about Brzezinski, but not one Republican so far has proposed a motion in Congress to censure the president for this and other outrageous statements.
On air, Brzezinski said that, “I am very concerned about what this once again reveals about the president of the United States. It’s strange,” adding “It does worry me about the country.” Scarborough pointed to the “alarming” pattern of Trump’s insults toward women. And in a tweet directed at Trump, Scarborough wrote, “Why do you keep lying about things that are so easily disproven? What is wrong with you?”
But Scarborough and Brzezinski are hardly emblems of journalistic integrity or political courage. Let’s not forget that the “Morning Joe” cohosts, particularly Scarborough (a former Republican Congressman from Florida), are partly responsible for Trump becoming president. They’ve known Trump for over a decade and were once among his biggest fans.
In late 2015 and 2016, when Trump’s campaign was gaining momentum, they defended him against his critics and offered him advice. For example, at an event at the 92nd Street Y in New York in November 2015, Scarborough proudly recounted how he frequently called Trump to offer political guidance. Returning the bromance favor, in January 2016 Trump talked about Scarborough with Boston talk radio host Howie Carr. “He’s a great guy, and he has a great show ... and we have a lot of fun,” Trump said. After Trump won the New Hampshire primary in February 2016, Trump appeared on “Morning Joe” and told the co-hosts: “You guys have been supporters, and I really appreciate it.”
A few days later, CNN reported that MSNBC officials were concerned about “Scarborough’s friendship with Trump and his increasingly favorable coverage of the candidate.” According to CNN, MSNBC insiders called Scarborough’s admiration for Trump “over the top” and “unseemly.” The Washington Post observed that Trump received “a tremendous degree of warmth from the show,” and that his appearances on the show, in person and over the phone, often felt like “a cozy social club.”
That coziness was caught on tape during an MSNBC town hall with Trump in New York that Scarborough and Brzezinski hosted in February 2016. An unaired clip of banter between Brzezinski and Trump in-between segments revealed the two of them colluding about what questions she’d ask him. “Nothing too hard, Mika,” Trump says. “OK,” she responded.
Even after Trump’s most disgusting and troublesome traits were revealed to the entire country throughout the campaign – his abuse of women, his attacks on Latinos, immigrants, Muslims, and people with disabilities, his profound ignorance of basic issues and government policy, and the corruption and scandals surrounding Trump University and the Trump foundation – Scarborough (and to a lesser extent Brzezinski) continued to lend Trump their support.
Trump and Scarborough’s relationship was a bromance of convenience. Trump got sympathetic coverage. Scarborough got inside information and frequent interviews that boosted “Morning Joe’s” ratings. But inevitably the two big egos clashed, with Brzezinski (slightly more liberal but less outspoken than her partner) collateral damage.
During the spring and summer, however, the relationship waxed hot and cold. In June, for example, Scarborough blasted Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders for endorsing Trump despite his “racist statements.” He warned Republicans that if they don’t “back away from those endorsements” they will “lose your standing as a national party.” That month Scarborough also said that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric “sounds a lot like Nazi Germany” and that Trump’s suggestion that Barack Obama was complicit in the shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub was “beyond breathtaking.”
In July, however, Scarborough parroted Trump’s criticism of FBI director James Comey for not recommending criminal charges against Clinton. After Trump gave a speech in Ohio that month, Brzezinski said that the candidate “got his groove back,” while Scarborough claimed that Trump looked “re-energized” and asked, “Is this guy really 70 years old?” On July 27, a week after Trump won the GOP nomination, however, Scarborough slammed Trump’s views on Russia. “He’s been an apologist for Vladimir Putin for a very long time,” he remarked, adding that Trump’s raise of Putin was “disqualifying.” By the end of July, Scarborough was calling on Republican leaders to “cut [Trump] loose.” But in August, reversing course, Scarborough backed Trump’s false claim that he had opposed the Iraq war.
In September, the couple met with the GOP nominee at Trump Tower to “rekindle” their relationship, according to CNN. After that meeting, they fawned over Trump for the next six months. They defended Trump’s call for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s Secret Service detail to disarm, his ugly comments on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and reports that he misused his charitable foundation to support his private businesses. After polls revealed the Trump lost his first two debates with Clinton, they defended his performance and questioned the polling results. Scarborough even argued that Trump’s shouldn’t be judged by normal debate standards. He even declared that debate moderators don’t need to fact-check statements made by the candidates – clearly a defense of Trump’s long-distance relationship with the truth.
At a September press event, Trump falsely claimed that Clinton had “started the birther controversy” (about Obama’s birthplace) but that he (Trump) had “finished it.” On their September 19 show, Brzezinski called on Trump to apologize for his long “birther” crusade but Scarborough quickly dismissed her comment. (This was not the first time that he publicly treated her with disdain and disrespect. He once told her, on air, that her political analysis “means nothing” because she is a Democrat).
In October, after the New York Times reported that Trump may have avoided paying federal income taxes for almost 20 years, Brzezinski came to his defense, claiming that he was “brilliant” for bragging how he had exploited the tax code to his advantage. Scarborough lashed out at journalists who criticized Trump for refusing to say if would accept the election results if he lost.
After Trump won the election, the duo continued to defend him, while Scarborough continued to give him advice during the transition. When Trump picked Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scarborough insisted that “I just know” that Trump “has to believe” in climate science. After Kellyanne Conway got a top White House job, she thanked Brzezinski for her “counsel and friendship.”
The MSNBC couple attended Trump’s New Year’s Eve party at Mar-a-Lago. Once Trump took office, he solidified his relationship with them. Scarborough bragged how he and Brzezinski have “known and have been friends with Donald Trump for a decade,” praising him as “the master of many things.”
By April, however, the duo stopped their love affair with the new president. While hardly joining the ranks of the “resistance” movement, their comments became more and more negative. As Trump became increasingly mired in scandal, Scarborough criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris environmental accords, which, he said, risked alienating China, India, and the U.S. business community. In May, Brzezinski bluntly stated, “This presidency is failing day by day by day through lies.” They began questioning Trump’s mental health.
In early June, while discussing Trump’s tweet rampages, including his attack on London’s mayor following a terrorist attack in that city, Scarborough observed, “There is not a sane rational human being who would have tweeted what he tweeted.”
Trump clearly took this about-face as a personal betrayal. Not unexpectedly, he overreacted and began attacking them via Twitter, even while falsely claiming that he rarely watched their show. Thursday’s Twitter tantrum was the latest, most personal, and most vulgar of his rants, but it was hardly out of character.
On Friday, the day after Trump’s attack, Scarborough said, “The guy that’s in the White House now is not the guy we knew two years ago.” Brzezinski agreed: “Not even close.”
That’s a lie.
People who have followed Trump’s career for years have remarked about his megalomania, vanity, need for flattery, hunger for adulation, nasty temper, thirst for revenge, instinct for humiliating his critics, sexist attitudes and abuse of women, racism, insistence on total fidelity, willingness to toss overboard anyone who fails his test of loyalty, and ignorance of history and current events. Scarborough and Brzezinski, who’ve known Trump for over a decade, had to be willfully oblivious to avoid seeing the true Trump.
All of Trump’s traits that they now find so objectionable were clearly on display last year when they embraced him and his campaign. They chose to ignore the obvious. Whether they wanted to get closer to power, out of personal loyalty, or (in Scarborough’s case) partisan allegiance, they helped normalize Trump even while he was violating every standard of decency expected of a presidential candidate and a president, while putting the nation at risk with his chaotic and impulsive behavior and unsteady leadership.
It is good that Scarborough and Brzezinski have finally recognized, or at least publicly admitted, that Trump is unfit to be president. If their recent critiques of Trump are the result of buyer’s remorse, a mea culpa for their previous fealty, atoning for past sins, or simply jumping off a sinking ship – well, better late than never.
But we shouldn’t forget or forgive them for helping this vile man become our nation’s president. We are reaping the consequences of their poor judgement and their unwillingness to speak truth to power. They should apologize to the American people.
Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.