The Memo: Trump’s Scarborough tweets unsettle his allies
President Trump’s willingness to ratchet up his attacks on MSNBC host Joe Scarborough is causing unease even among people in the president’s orbit.
Trump has falsely insinuated that Scarborough was involved in the death of a staffer in 2001, at a time when the anchor was a Republican congressman from Florida.
The deceased woman, Lori Klausutis, was 28 when she died after collapsing, apparently as a result of an undiagnosed heart condition, and striking her head.
Despite that, Trump has continued to raise the issue. On Wednesday morning, he tweeted again about “Psycho Joe Scarborough” purportedly being “rattled” by “all of the things and facts that are coming out.”
A Republican strategist with ties to the White House was among those who expressed concern.
“It really feels out of place and extremely inappropriate for what we are dealing with as a country,” this strategist told The Hill.
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser, was critical in general terms of Scarborough and his wife and co-host, Mika Brzezinski, who were at one point highly complimentary of Trump. Nunberg recalled how solicitous they were of Trump, including in private phone calls that Nunberg himself overheard.
“The reality is, when it was convenient for them, they were his friends,” Nunberg said.
At the same time, he acknowledged that Trump’s accusations and insinuations were doing him no good, especially at this point.
“At the beginning it was irrelevant. I just think now it’s just old,” Nunberg said. He invoked another unnamed adviser during the early days of Trump’s presidential run who purportedly noted “Donald has the problem of not wearing well on people.”
Nunberg added: “Right now, in his presidency, we are not ‘The Apprentice’ season one anymore. We are in season six, viewership is down, the game is old, and things like this, when Americans have larger concerns, is a problem.”
Klausutis’s widower last week appealed to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to delete some of Trump’s earlier tweets on the matter, charging that they amounted to the president having “taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain.”
Among the broader Republican Party, concerns are widespread. There is widespread puzzlement at how Trump might believe he is helping himself.
“Look, I don’t understand the strategy,” said Alex Conant, a GOP consultant who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign.
“Joe Scarborough has nothing to do with defeating the pandemic or winning the election, so why Scarborough continues to occupy so much of the president’s attention is confusing.”
There has long been a split, even among those who know Trump personally over a long period of time, as to whether there is a strategy behind his actions or whether he simply acts in a more visceral way, fueled by his own resentments and whims.
The Scarborough attacks are seen by some as an attempt to divert public attention from the coronavirus crisis.
Trump has intensified his attacks and smears on Scarborough just as the deaths in the United States from COVID-19 reach 100,000. More than 38 million people have filed new unemployment claims since the crisis began. The unemployment rate is now 14.7 percent, significantly above its worst levels during the Great Recession a decade ago.
Those problems are compounded by a slide in the opinion polls for the president. Not only is Trump trailing presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in head-to-head polls, but there is also concern in Trump’s orbit about voters’ views of the country’s direction.
A new Economist-YouGov poll released Wednesday showed just 31 percent of Americans believing the nation was on the right track, compared to 60 percent who believe it is on the wrong track. Even some longtime Trump allies believe those kinds of numbers pose a real problem for an incumbent president seeking reelection.
But even if Trump is using the Scarborough matter as a self-ignited fire to distract from other problems, there are real questions as to how effective that could be.
“I’ve no doubt he is under a lot of pressure,” said Conant. “I can’t speak to his psychology. I don’t know how he reacts to that. But if I were giving him advice, I would tell him to focus 100 percent on the economy and the pandemic and leave Twitter to the trolls.”
Others in Trump World worry that the president is retreating back into a comfort world of Twitter fights and television feuds because the challenges facing him seem so overwhelming.
But, for all that, there are still some loyalists who insist that there is always the chance that media outrage rebounds to the president’s advantage.
“Out of context, you know, it’s not entirely helpful,” said Barry Bennett, a former senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, referring to the president’s insinuations against the MSNBC host. “But, in context, when you have journalists who have called him a Russian spy or a racist, and now they are crying? They are hypocrites.”
But others, such as the GOP strategist with White House ties, are left scratching their heads.
“I just don’t know how it improves your standing in the polls,” the source said. “I don’t think anyone really knows why he did it — except maybe, simply, to create trouble for Joe Scarborough.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.