Thanks to the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it nature of President Donald Trump’s first months in the White House, more people are turning to cable news in the morning than ever before. That’s good news for MSNBC’s daily political salon “Morning Joe” with Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist — where opinion leaders and White House officials have long tuned in to see the day’s agenda being set.
During the presidential campaign, Trump often called into the program because he has known Scarborough and Brzezinski for years. (They still call him Donald.) The co-hosts had higher hopes than many pundits for Trump’s presidency, and they are still cheering for his success. But the president’s early missteps — such as his unproven claim of having been wiretapped by President Barack Obama — have troubled them. Scarborough and Brzezinski recently talked about their fraught relationship with the commander in chief over Cheerios served at NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters during a break from their show.
“Morning Joe” is hot right now. What’s it like to have your best ratings ever?
Joe Scarborough: It’s surreal. We’re coming up on 10 years, as Mika points out, we can’t think of any co-anchors who have been together for a decade. Then add Willie Geist — three people, together every day for a decade. That’s great.
The show has always appeared to be very personal. You don’t see any fingerprints of management or market research on it. How are you able to keep that kind of control?
Mika Brzezinski: Upstairs, they know we’re going to do what we’re going to do. They know that because we’ve established it from day one that we are going to be who we are. We’re going to rip up the script if you give us something to read that is not real.
Does the fact that President Trump watches your show and often reacts in real time affect the way you do this job?
Scarborough: (Laughs) We’ve called him everything on the air.
Brzezinski: It did affect me for a temporary amount of time, and that was when he won. I said to myself, “I’m going to give him a chance. I’m going to hold back. I’m going to calm down. This is a shame, but it happened.” And I waited … even was hoping the right people would surround him and Ivanka on women’s issues. I even spoke to a global CEO and actually helped bring her in to talk to the president. I held back from running my mouth on everything just to see what would happen. When he tweeted about Obama it was just completely over. There was no turning back from being highly critical.
But do you have to be careful about what you’re saying because the president may run with it on Twitter or at a press conference?
Scarborough: No. The only time we’ve played to TV was (Trump) being petulant during the campaign and calling Mika neurotic and accusing us of having an affair and saying I was a loser for supporting Jeb Bush and John Kasich, and he did a series of tweets that said “Low rated Morning Joe,” “I never watch,” da, da, da, da, da. And we’d always turned to the (camera) and said “Hi Donald.” He admitted after the election that he would always laugh whenever we did that.
Brzezinski: He will never stop watching.
Scarborough: But I will say again there were a spate of articles over the summer and fall about our relationship with Donald that always missed the point — “Is that a huge responsibility for you that the president is watching your show?” Well, I don’t know if Barack Obama watched our show, but I know that everybody in the administration did. Barack Obama is actually a grown-up, unlike Donald Trump, so they didn’t tweet things out after watching.
Has the nature of his presidency changed the way you prepare for the show? It used to be that you went to bed having a pretty good idea of what you were going to talk about the next day. But now you have someone in the White House who is able to change the course of the conversation with a tweet in the middle of the night.
Scarborough: We have to actually have to stop and look at what happened during the day and say, “How are we going to put this into context?” We never had to do that before. We’d come on the set. We’d look at what’s in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, what we’d seen in our breaking news and our Twitter feeds over the past day, and we would go. We’re actually sitting and talking more during the day, which we didn’t usually do because we didn’t want it to get in the way of the spontaneity.
Brzezinski: Over the past 10 years, the show really has been a mix of my weird emotional gut with Joe’s basic very accurate knowledge of history of what’s going to happen. … Part of what he does is say, “Here’s what they’re doing. Let me just tell you how this is going to end.” I will say about 10 or 20 days into the Trump administration, Joe looked a little different. I was like, “What’s wrong? Omigod, you don’t know what’s going to happen.” He was disturbed. He was sort of off.
Scarborough: When Trump questioned a federal judge’s legitimacy, alarm bells really started ringing. Then when he called the media the enemy of the people, at that point I stopped being able to answer that question “Is everything going to be OK?” Two or three weeks later I’m feeling a little bit better. The checks and balances have worked. … Today, for the first time, I was asking myself: Am I experiencing burnout from all of this coming at us and having to talk about it for three hours? Do I need to take a couple of days off, clear my head, stop reading the Twitter feed and watch “Homeland” or “Billions” or something?
When was the last time you talked with President Trump?
Scarborough: I went to the White House before his speech to Congress and spent a half-hour with him.
Brzezinski: He doesn’t talk to me at all.
Scarborough: He takes Mika’s insults far more personally than mine. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe because she’s a Brzezinski and he respects her dad (former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski).
Do you think he takes it more personally when criticism comes from a woman?
Brzezinski: I think so. He just won’t even engage. Joe will punch him in the face and he’ll come back for more.