This week, there has been a kerfuffle about MSNBC host Joe Scarborough’s attendance at President-elect Donald Trump’s New Year’s Eve reception. It started with a Maggie Haberman article in the New York Times and escalated with a Sopan Deb tweet:
Scarborough fired back on Twitter, in a column for The Washington Post and in an interview with CNN’s Dylan Byers. It’s now quite clear that Scarborough was not partying with Trump. It was his second meeting with Trump in a week — the first being a dinner a few nights before — in an effort “to secure an interview for inauguration week,” in Scarborough’s own words.
The more interesting part of this is Scarborough’s argument about media bias. In his Post essay, he writes:
The dinner conversation was much like what I have heard the countless off-the-record discussions [President] Obama hosted were like over his two terms in the White House — with media figures such as Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, David Ignatius, Jeffrey Goldberg, David Brooks, and even Mika Brzezinski and myself having a 90-minute Oval Office meeting. The main difference between Obama’s numerous off-the-record powwows with reporters and the one I had with Trump on Saturday night was that ours was not on deep background.
This is true, as Scarborough’s column offers some tidbits from the conversation. And in his interview with Byers, he says:
How do you explain that Fareed Zakaria regularly called Barack Obama, and Barack Obama regularly spoke to Fareed Zakaria to give him advice about foreign policy, and you never heard any outcry about that. And yet, I talk to Donald Trump over the phone once or twice a week after he’s elected and it’s in the lead of the New York Times and suddenly it becomes this great scandal.
This is the thing that is so frustrating to me: Far from being a new phenomenon, this is something that’s been going on since newspapers began being printed. There are the stories of Joseph Alsop busting down a door in L.A. at the 1960 convention, badgering John Kennedy to select LBJ as his running mate. Walter Lippmann bragged about giving advice to LBJ. So on that aspect of it, actually, I socialize with politicians far, far less than the overwhelming number of people who report — whether you’re talking about Andrea Mitchell or Elisabeth Bumiller or Chris Matthews or, as I said, Fareed Zakaria or Thomas Friedman. …
The only difference is that Donald Trump is now the person calling us up. So for some reason, this is now shocking and everybody’s aghast when the fact is, again, my interactions with Donald Trump are so much more limited than Fareed Zakaria’s with Barack Obama or Ben Bradlee’s with JFK or Walter Lippmann’s with LBJ, or — you just go down the list.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has had its own run-ins with Scarborough over the past year. That said, as someone who has a book coming out with a chapter on Lippmann and CNN host Zakaria (among others), I think Scarborough has a decent case to make. Lippmann spent most of his career ingratiating himself with presidents whom he then tried to sway. During the Cold War, the KGB, which monitored influential members of the Washington press corps, gave Lippmann the code name “Hub” for a reason. And even before the Obama years, Zakaria, who also writes for The Post, met with myriad senior officials from the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. He interacted with Obama so much that he had to clarify that he was not an Obama adviser.
Matt K. Lewis also thinks that Scarborough is being unfairly maligned, and that this is an example of Trump Derangement Syndrome. Lewis very well may be correct. But he also acknowledges, “in order to be open to this argument, you have to put aside how you might feel about (A) Donald Trump’s past comments and actions, and (B) Scarborough’s treatment of Trump during the GOP primary — treatment that some felt helped boost Trump’s electoral prospects.” That’s easier said than done for some observers, but it certainly feeds into Lewis’s argument.
Let me suggest that there are two other aspects of this story that also may be raising some hackles. The first is that Scarborough is underestimating the grumbling that past pundit access to the Oval Office generated. Lippmann’s peers deeply resented Lippmann’s access. The fact that Zakaria had to distance himself from Obama suggests that there was an outcry from some circles. As Byers wrote about Obama’s off-the-record meetings with columnists in 2013, “reporters envy the columnists’ access to the president, and complain of watching their contemporaries funnel in and out of the Roosevelt Room while they remain held at bay in the briefing room.” Media resentment of preferred access to a president is not actually a unique feature of the Trump era (the contrast between the president-elect’s “draining the swamp” rhetoric and his desire to curry favor with the likes of Scarborough also highlights some of the hypocrisy on display on Trump’s side).
The second is that maybe, just maybe, Trump is not like past presidents when it comes to the value of these kinds of interactions. The idea behind off-the-record access to a president is that it allows a leader to reveal some of his or her private musings. A president’s thought processes could be shaped by engaged conversations with informed observers.
This does not sound like Trump. Scarborough’s accounting of his conversation with the president-elect does not break any new ground. I have talked to a few people who have interacted with the president-elect since November, and they have been consistent on one thing: There is no private side to Trump. The persona you see in public is what you get in one-on-one meetings with him. His focus on the visual aspects of his media appearances is well-known. And as The Post’s Ben Terris noted last month:
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.’”
Despite his protestations of limited contact with Trump, Scarborough has a long history with him. He implies that he can influence the president-elect through private conversations. But all of the evidence suggests that any influence he exerts will come through what Trump sees on “Morning Joe,” not what they talk about at the president-elect’s Florida home, Mar-a-Lago.
If Scarborough aspires to be Trump’s Walter Lippmann, more power to him. I am dubious, however, that it is possible for anyone to be Trump’s Walter Lippmann.