The White House offered to have a US tabloid kill a damaging story about the hosts of a cable news show if they personally apologised to the president, according to the two journalists who have become the latest target of Donald Trump’s attacks on the media.
The claim, which Mr Trump dismissed as “fake news”, came a day after the president assailed Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, in a pair of crude and personal tweets that drew condemnation from Republican lawmakers and rekindled concerns over his temperament and treatment of women.
Ms Brzezinski and Mr Scarborough responded to Mr Trump in an op-ed in the Washington Post on Friday titled “Donald Trump is not well”. They wrote: “This year, 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. We ignored their desperate pleas.”
The pair, who are engaged, gave more detail during their show on Friday morning. “They said, if you call the president up and you apologise for your coverage, then he will pick up the phone and basically spike the story. I had, I will just say, three people at the very top of the administration calling me,” Mr Scarborough said “The calls kept coming. And kept coming.”
Ms Brzezinski said the National Enquirer had been calling her children and her close friends about a story they were planning to run, and the White House “said, oh, this could go away.”
Dylan Howard, chief content officer at American Media, which owns the tabloid, said the National Enquirer had “accurately reported a story” about the two journalists but denied any knowledge of their claims about the White House.
“At no time did we threaten either Joe or Mika or their children in connection with our reporting on the story. We have no knowledge of any discussions between the White House and Joe and Mika about our story, and absolutely no involvement in those discussions,” he said in a statement.
Mr Trump is a long-time friend of David Pecker, American Media’s chief executive and publisher of the National Enquirer, a fixture of supermarket checkout lines known for salacious and often far-fetched coverage of celebrities and politicians. The paper broke the story that John Edwards, a Democratic presidential candidate in 2008, had a baby with his mistress during his campaign. During the 2016 campaign, the tabloid attacked candidates including Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton but remained supportive of Mr Trump, even running opinion pieces by him.
A recent profile of Mr Pecker in the New Yorker detailed the National Enquirer’s support for Mr Trump and the publisher’s candour about using his media outlets to help his friends. “The guy’s a personal friend of mine,” Mr Pecker told the magazine.
The accusation from Ms Brzezinski and Mr Scarborough set off another round of combat with the president. Mr Trump tweeted during Friday morning’s broadcast, “Watched low rated @Morning_Joe for first time in long time. FAKE NEWS. He called me to stop a National Enquirer article. I said no! Bad show”.
Mr Scarborough shot back on Twitter, “Yet another lie. I have texts from your top aides and phone records. Also, those records show I haven’t spoken with you in many months.” He added: “Why do you keep lying about things that are so easily disproven? What is wrong with you?”