NEW YORK — Joe Scarborough knew he had Donald Trump’s ear. And so, in the fall of 2015, not long after the businessman launched a long-shot presidential campaign, the MSNBC host sat him down for a lecture.
Things were about to “get real,” Scarborough says he told the newbie politician. It didn’t matter that they had golfed together or laughed together during Trump’s many jolly, blustering cameos on Scarborough’s freewheeling talk shows. Now he was a candidate, and “Morning Joe” would have to hit him with tough questions, and scrutiny of a kind he never faced as a branding mogul and reality-TV star.
“I said, ‘Donald, here’s the deal,’ ” Scarborough recalled last week. “‘We were friends before the campaign, and when the parade stops and everybody turns on you like they do in politics, we’ll be your friends after the campaign.’”
It’s an acknowledgment of a coziness that drove Scarborough’s critics nuts throughout the 2016 campaign. Every news organization lavished attention on the unpredictable dark horse, of course, but to many, it seemed it was the special attention from “Morning Joe” — a relaxed if self-important clubhouse for the media-political elite — that lent legitimacy to the Trump phenomenon.
But now, his pipeline to The Donald poses an opportunity — or, perhaps, a kind of responsibility.
The president-elect may profess to be too busy for classified briefings, but if the real-time media criticism issuing forth from @realDonaldTrump is any indication, he has an unending hunger for cable-news punditry. “Who do you talk to for military advice?” NBC’s Chuck Todd asked him last year. “Well,” Trump said, “I watch the shows.”
One in particular seems a clear favorite. Scarborough insists this is nothing new for him, that the nation’s “influencers” have always watched his show. It’s a studied bit of nonchalance from a host who has never been known for his humility. But for once, it suddenly seems possible that Scarborough’s levels of ego and clout may be in alignment.
“Trump has been watching Joe for 15 years,” Willie Geist, one of Scarborough’s co-hosts, said in a phone interview. “He got his sense of politics and the world from ‘Morning Joe.’ ”
Scarborough insists that if you want to know what he tells Trump in private, listen to what he says in public when Trump’s not there.
On “Morning Joe,” the former GOP congressman is apt to offer guidance on Cabinet appointments: “Pick Rudy Giuliani as your secretary of state,” he intoned to the camera a week after the election, “and watch everything melt down internationally.”
He dishes about his chats with the president-elect, explaining on Nov. 28 why Trump might bury the hatchet with Mitt Romney. “When the name first came up, I said, ‘You comfortable with the guy? He was tough on you.’ Donald Trump said, ‘Hey, I beat him up for five years. . . . I like the fact that the guy pushes back.’ ”
He’ll offer insights into the thinking inside Trump Tower — he revealed on Dec. 1, for example, that ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was a front-runner to lead the State Department before the name was widely floated. When Trump settled on Tillerson on Tuesday, Scarborough declared the pick “checks off the boxes that Ike [Eisenhower] was always looking for in his Cabinet.”
It’s an odd position, advising and reporting upon a president, sometimes on the very same topic. It’s engendered some bad feelings within NBC News, and it put targets on the backs of Scarborough and his longtime co-host Mika Brzezinski. Trump has referred to the duo as “supporters” and thanked them for helping make him “almost as a legendary figure.” CNN rival Chris Cuomo called them “boosters”; liberal MSNBC alumnus Keith Olbermann compared the host to Franz von Papen, the German chancellor who eased Hitler’s rise to power.
Scarborough views the criticism as “hypocritical,” he said. “Andrea Mitchell is friends with everyone in D.C. Chris Matthews is friends with people who have run for president of the United States.” No one seemed to mind, he said, that he had off-the-record conversations with President Obama or considers Obama’s campaign strategist David Axelrod a friend.
So “why in the world,” he complained during an interview at their 30 Rockefeller Center studio, “would this suddenly concern people?”
“It’s because they are unfair and mean and jealous,” Brzezinski said as she slid into a seat next to him.
She maintains that just because they build sources and conduct interviews with newsmakers doesn’t mean they should be held to the rigid standards of journalism. “If you're going to call us journalists,” said Brzezinski, who came up through the ranks as a CBS reporter before joining the pundit class, “you can take every tenet of journalism and show that we’re breaking it.”
Brzezinski has taken to compiling a catalogue of all the occasions they have been tough on Trump. There was the time Scarborough hung up on Trump after he refused to answer questions on-air about his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States; the time he proclaimed that Trump’s idea to deport millions of illegal immigrants was “never going to happen”; the time he called on Trump to drop his “birther” conspiracies and admit that Obama was born in the United States; the time he declared that Trump’s supposed ignorance of former KKK leader David Duke’s support was “disqualifying”; not to mention the “dump Trump” column he wrote in August for The Washington Post editorial page, where he is an occasional contributor.
“Go ahead and try to find another host who has been as hard on Trump,” Brzezinski said.
Of course, it depends which morning you tune in — the blessing and the curse of a three-hour, five-day-a-week show. Scarborough may have said Trump’s rhetoric was starting to sound like “Nazi Germany” in one interview. But when a recent guest expressed his family’s fear of a President Trump, Scarborough accused him of overreacting: “Hitler is not coming back.” Yes, Scarborough can point to moments during the campaign where he seemed to predict a Trump victory, but he also tweeted days before the election that he saw no path for it to happen.
Their early relationship was so much simpler. “Rosie is nothing but a bully and a slob,” Trump said during a typical call into “Scarborough Country,” the host’s first MSNBC gig, back in 2007. The topic was his operatic feud with fellow TV personality Rosie O’Donnell.
After Scarborough was promoted to his morning slot in 2007, Trump followed, as both a guest and fan. “It’s a vibrant and entertaining show,” he wrote in his book “Time to Get Tough: Making America #1.” “They have a great future in television or anything they want to do.”
His only complaint? Scarborough and Brzezinski would occasionally dial up Trump on speakerphone during their own speaking engagements to rile up the crowd, but were never “forthcoming” about their relationship with him: “They should be more open about how I help them.”
Around that time, Brzezinski said, Trump “started inviting us to things.” In 2010 they guested on “The Apprentice.” He came to their book parties and donated to their fundraisers.
“Sometimes when I’m in his office he’ll be like, ‘Here have this, have that,’ ” she said. “He just loves to give.” It’s an odd assertion from a media professional, after widely reported disclosures that Trump has made relatively few documented charitable contributions and given none of his own money to his charitable foundation since 2008.
But this wasn’t “about buying access,” she said. It didn’t matter, the hosts said, if they were friends with a newsmaker or whether he watched the show. It wouldn’t keep them from honest reporting.
Olbermann, long a vocal critic of Scarborough, doesn’t buy this argument. “Like everything else in life,” he said, “there’s already been a ‘Monty Python’ episode that predicted this.”
He’s referring to a 1970 episode of the surrealist British comedy. At the beginning of the show, the actors are told that the queen may be watching. Then, midway through a sketch, a voice-over announces that Her Majesty has, indeed, tuned in. The cast and the audience immediately stand to attention, and the performance shifts to a stiff, formal tone befitting the tastes of a monarch.
For his first several months as a candidate, Trump would come on the show and yuk it up, Scarborough might call him a “masterful” politician, and everyone seemed happy. “He’s a great guy, and he has a great show,” Trump told Boston radio talk show host Howie Carr, in January.
But things soured in May of this year, when Scarborough said he believed Trump’s candidacy opened the door for a third-party candidate. Trump turned to Twitter in a rage: “Joe Scarborough initially endorsed Jeb Bush and Jeb crashed, then John Kasich and that didn’t work. Not much power or insight!” he typed. Later, after Brzezinski admonished House Speaker Paul Ryan for supporting Trump, the irascible candidate told the world he had stopped watching.
“I hear Mika has gone wild with hate,” he tweeted. “Joe is Joe. They lost their way!”
Trump even threatened to “tell the real story” about the much-discussed relationship between Scarborough and Brzezinski, both recently divorced and frequently seen together off-set. (On that matter, Scarborough will only say, “We are an on-air TV couple, that’s as far as we want to go on that.”)
But that was many tweets ago. Trump and Scarborough are talking again. And the host is putting his advice out there.
How does Trump take it? “A lot of times the response is a poke that’s suggesting I’m wrong, or prodding me to explain why,” Scarborough said. But the president-elect keeps calling. If Trump didn’t care about his opinion at all, Scarborough suggested, then “Rudy Giuliani would already be nominated for secretary of state.”
Some days Trump watches “Morning Joe,” and some days it’s clear from Twitter he’s watching something else. Other times he claims he no longer watches it while tweeting very specific observations that make it clear he hadn’t missed a minute. But last week, his vice president-elect, Mike Pence, was on, and everyone knew Trump would tune in.
Looking back at the episode now, Scarborough sees it as a great success. Before Pence arrived, he said, the panel spent the morning “excoriating” the son of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, who had helped spread a “fake news” story spouting invented claims that a popular D.C. pizza parlor harbored a Democratic pedophilia ring. Scarborough called it “abhorrent” that the younger Flynn was part of the transition team.
When Pence showed up for a later segment, he flatly stated that Flynn’s son had no transition role. To some viewers, it looked like a bit of political prevarication. But in Scarborough’s view, it was news being made. It was later in the day that the Trump team formally announced that young Flynn was out of a job — but Scarborough believes the end came on “Morning Joe.”
“We crushed Flynn,” Scarborough said later. “And they decided to cut him loose while watching our show. . . They saw smoke rising over ‘Morning Joe’ and decided they had to do something.”
For a time, all this talk about being an “unofficial adviser” led to rumors that Scarborough could be Trump’s running mate. He denies this vehemently now, but at the time, Scarborough played coy. “I’ll do anything,” he told radio host Hugh Hewitt, to “stop us from eight more years like the past eight years we’ve had.”
“He may discredit those rumors, but he seems pleased with them,” said Michael Weisman, a former “Morning Joe” executive producer. “Like everybody who is joining Trump now, like everyone who was once against him, if asked, Joe would serve.”
While much of the media has been thrown into an existential crisis by the election, Scarborough isn’t much for introspection. He says he has no regrets: not about how he covered Trump, nor about not joining the campaign. After all, he may already have something more than your average veep.
“I’m good here,” he said. “We have influence.”