This month, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough escalated his attempt to portray himself as a committed leader of the Trump opposition: He announced that he was leaving the Republican party and wrote that “Trump’s Republicans have devolved into a party without a cause, dominated by a leader hopelessly ill-informed about the basics of conservatism, U.S. history and the Constitution.” Somehow, Scarborough appears to have forgotten how he repeatedly covered for Trump as the latter bulldozed his way to the White House — or perhaps Scarborough hopes others will forget if he criticizes Trump enough.
Let’s review the history.
In 2011, Trump, then just a businessman and reality-TV host, first began to question President Obama’s birthplace. He quickly became an unapologetic leader of the “birther” movement, and the attention he received helped propel him into politics.
He opted out of the 2012 race, but soon enough Trump officially announced his 2016 presidential campaign — with a speech that insulted Mexicans and openly stoked racial tensions. He later insulted prisoners of war (while failing to note he had avoided the draft using deferments) and also frequently made sexist remarks, insinuating Megyn Kelly was unable to control her emotions and arguing voters would reject Carly Fiorina as president because of her appearance. Meanwhile, Trump found Russian president Vladimir Putin worthy of praise.
Yet in November 2015, Scarborough praised Trump (“I think the one thing that Donald Trump has . . . and that Ronald Reagan had, was the genius of knowing that the greatest thing he had going for him was always being underestimated”); disclosed how he had reached out to Trump to provide political advice (“I’ve actually called him up, and I said, ‘Donald, listen, you need to speak in complete sentences in debates . . . You should read before a debate! . . . Read a paragraph on Syria, read a paragraph on education reform!’”); gushed over Trump’s supposed strength (“what Donald Trump brings is gut instinct and strength”); and pushed the false narrative that Republicans consistently lose (“Republicans are so tired of losing on the presidential level that they want strength”).
When Kelly questioned in December 2015 whether Trump was an “honest person” after his false claim that thousands of Muslims had celebrated 9/11 in New Jersey, Scarborough called Kelly’s treatment of Trump “vicious.” One month later, Scarborough defended Trump’s decision to skip a Fox News debate, saying, “I’d rather set myself on fire in front of the Fox News studio than go on the debate stage with that,” referring to Kelly. That month, Scarborough also teased the possibility of being Trump’s running mate, at first refusing to give a definitive answer.
However, February was perhaps the busiest month for Scarborough and Trump. Scarborough visited Trump in his hotel during the New Hampshire primary on February 9, and the next morning Trump thanked Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski for being “supporters” and “believers.” The Morning Joe hosts challenged these labels, but actions speak louder than words: Trump appeared on the show far more than his GOP rivals, and he was allowed to call in — thus providing Trump with a nationwide audience without the inconvenience of leaving the campaign trail or expending resources.
CNN revealed on February 12 that MSNBC was uncomfortable with Scarborough’s friendship with the candidate, mentioning both Scarborough’s one-week stay at Trump’s club just two months earlier and his hotel visit. MSNBC was forced to issue a statement on the hotel visit, stating it was to interview staff for “background information” for “less than five minutes.” (Fittingly for 2016, the MSNBC statement concluded by comparing MSNBC’s ratings with CNN’s.) Interestingly, Scarborough himself contradicted this version of events, saying “we talked to [senior staff] for about 30, 45 minutes.”
Days later, CNN planned to host the Republican candidates in two town halls. In an obvious ratings grab that drowned out coverage for the other candidates, Scarborough announced a town hall on one of the same nights — for Trump only. The MSNBC town hall ultimately received overwhelmingly negative coverage, owing to a general consensus that Trump faced only softball questions (“How will you set yourself apart?”) rather than providing an in-depth discussion of substantive policy issues or the candidate’s many controversies. A few days later, hot-mic audio leaked that explained the friendly atmosphere: Trump is heard saying, “Just make us all look good,” to which Scarborough responded, “Exactly.” Later, Trump instructed, “Nothing too hard.”
Scarborough further provided cover that month when Trump refused to release his tax returns, asking, “Why are his taxes relevant?” (Tax returns show sources of income, deductions, charitable donations, and ties to foreign countries and governments — which now seem more relevant than ever.) Scarborough did issue rare criticism of Trump, though, when Trump ended February by repeatedly sidestepping Jake Tapper’s attempt to discuss an endorsement of Trump by former KKK grand wizard David Duke.
While Scarborough excoriates Trump now, he had no interest in sinking him during the primaries. Two months after the David Duke incident, Scarborough blasted the GOP establishment’s opposition to Trump: The “level of rage among Trump’s political enemies from inside the Republican establishment” was “most astonishing,” and his “conservative friends are sounding as arrogant and unmoored as left-wing pundits let loose on MSNBC during the Bush years.” Scarborough also recommended “hold[ing] off on the political purges for now” — despite overwhelming evidence that Trump was fundamentally unfit for office.
By then, only three Republican candidates were left: Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich. The window for preventing Trump was quickly closing, and every victory by either Cruz or Kasich increased the possibility of a contested convention. Yet twelve days later, Scarborough explicitly warned that Cruz would be a worse nominee than Trump because he’d hurt down-ballot races and potentially cost Republicans control of Congress. Even after Cruz’s decisive April 5 victory in Wisconsin, when momentum for #NeverTrump mattered more than ever, Scarborough forcefully dismissed both the win and #NeverTrump’s efforts to stave off Trump, insisting that Ted Cruz “will never be the nominee of the Republican party” and would only “win nine, ten states in the general election.”
Scarborough explicitly warned that Cruz would be a worse nominee than Trump.
Maybe there was something to Scarborough’s analysis; Trump did, in fact, win the nomination handily, and there’s no way of knowing how Cruz would have fared in the general election. But Scarborough specifically sought to discourage voters from attempting to prevent Trump’s nomination, pushing the idea that Trump was unstoppable and that supporting other Republican candidates would undermine the GOP’s chances against Hillary Clinton. And now Scarborough wants to act as though the Republican party is to blame for Trump?
In August 2016, Scarborough declared that the “loud, screaming, racially insensitive, at times race-baiting buffoon” was just “Donald Trump playing a role” and that he had never heard Trump say anything “in private that was close to being racially insensitive.” There’s no denying that Trump is a showman, but it is remarkable that Scarborough felt the need to excuse and defend the public behavior of a 70-year-old-man who had risen to political prominence by doubting a black American’s birthplace, had recently accused an Indiana-born judge of being biased because of the judge’s Mexican heritage, and had suggested a Gold Star mother hadn’t spoken at the Democratic National Convention because she wasn’t “allowed” to speak (presumably alluding to female subservience and the family’s Islamic faith). Furthermore, Trump’s comments in audio leaked from a taping of Access Hollywood, while misogynistic rather than racist, suggest his private persona is not so different from his public one. When the tape was leaked, Trump’s defense was that it was “a private conversation.”
People were rightfully concerned in October when Trump refused to unconditionally agree he would accept the election results. Yet Scarborough mocked, “This is an example [where] the media got something they can absolutely freak out about and claim that he is an agent of Vladimir Putin and destroying democracy in America.”
Scarborough and Trump then spent New Year’s Eve together at Mar-a-Lago (though Scarborough claims he was only there for 15 minutes to arrange an interview). Several weeks later, Scarborough visited Trump at the White House, where Trump offered to marry Scarborough and Brzezinski at the White House.
But now, after being friendly toward the president through many scandals, and after enabling him throughout 2016, Scarborough wants to distance himself from Trump?
Scarborough uses his public preference for Jeb Bush as evidence he didn’t go easy on Trump. He notes that he never claimed to be impartial, and to be sure, he’s not the only one in the media who milked Trump for ratings. But it’s unacceptable that Scarborough now acts as though he always sounded the alarm against Trump. Scarborough criticized Trump occasionally, but he enabled Trump’s candidacy far more. Clearly there was an agenda behind Scarborough’s coverage of Candidate Trump, and it’s one that’s shifted now that Trump is president.
After enabling the president throughout 2016, Scarborough wants to distance himself from Trump?
To summarize: Scarborough laughed off Trump controversies. Scarborough consistently praised Trump and his campaign. Scarborough was positively gleeful when tearing down “elites” for not understanding Trump’s appeal. Scarborough treated other Republican candidates with contempt. Scarborough relentlessly propagated the idea that Trump was inevitable. Scarborough sneered at #NeverTrump.
Scarborough apparently wants to test how short memories are. Shall we test his?
Last week, Scarborough asked, “what exactly is the Republican party willing to do? How far are they willing to go? How much of this country and our values are they willing to sell out?” But Scarborough said in January, “I’ll do anything that will stop us from eight more years like the past eight years we’ve had. . . . I would do just about anything to try to get the White House back.”
In 2016, Scarborough stated that the GOP (and the country) would survive Trump. Now he thinks he, of all people, gets to warn that Trump is killing the GOP and to pretend he actively opposed Trump all along?
As Trump would say: WRONG.
— Sarah Quinlan is a recent MBA graduate of the Stern School of Business at New York University. She currently lives in New York City. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other entity or individual.