Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski long ago put to rest the notion that morning shows had to be fluffy and light to gain traction among the toast-and-orange juice crowd. Their “Morning Joe,” co-hosted with Willie Geist, has become an MSNBC must-stop for anyone seeking to divine how Washington works — or doesn’t.
As the team approaches a decade on the air, however, its hosts have generated some controversy. Do they support President Trump or oppose him, and what does that mean for how their program is perceived? In an interview last week, Brzezinski and a vacationing Scarborough held forth, trading responses as Scarborough called in via smart phone and Brzezinski worked her way through a quick bowl of Cheerios – and then power-walked through the stairs and hallways of NBCUniversal’s New York headquarters to get back to the set. Their rapport and interest in a more intellectual discussion of politics has brought a windfall to their cable-news network. Season to date as of February 26, viewership for “Morning Joe” among people between 25 and 54 – the audience most coveted by advertisers – was up a little over 64%. Below, in edited remarks, Scarborough and Brzezinski explain why they think the current administration will keep watching, no matter what they say on their show:
Let’s address the obvious question. In recent broadcasts, you’ve taken the president and his staff to task. But for several weeks before that, you were like the insiders who were guiding us through the Tao of Trump. What happened?
Mika Brzezinski: Well, we are still insiders; we talk to everybody there. And we are still trying to guide people through it, and understand it ourselves. I think that your analysis is a little broad. If you look at the campaign coverage, and you actually look at the words that Joe said, and the words that I said in the run-up to the campaign — and even in the first few weeks after the election — you will see we were incredibly tough on Trump. Nobody said tougher things about Donald Trump than Joe, who said ‘I would never vote for anybody – anybody – who has a Muslim ban who does what Trump just said.’ He literally said he’s not voting for him.
Joe Scarborough: This guy has been our friend for 10, 11, 12 years. We had him on the show. But at the same time, Mika and I both said … in December of 2015, I said I could never vote for a Republican that supported a Muslim ban, or even talked about it. That was three months before the first vote. I know CNN and some of our opponents like to suggest we were trying to help him and trying to promote him, but if you look at what we said, and not only on TV but in my columns in The Washington Post, I think it was in early March before Super Tuesday after he denied knowing David Duke and how bad the Klan was – I said those comments were disqualifying.
Brzezinski: I’m not proud of it, but I questioned his mental health during the campaign.
Scarborough: We somehow maintained a working relationship with him after [adviser and son-in-law} Jared [Kushner] got a meeting together in early fall. But we still were extremely tough. I think the thing that most people in the press don’t understand is how we have been able to be more harsh than most people in the media and still maintain a relationship with the White House.
How are you navigating the White House today?
Brzezinski: In the first weeks of the presidency, I did present a great deal of patience, and held fire a little bit. I pulled back a little, because I feel like every presidency needs a chance to get its sea legs. And you want every presidency, whether you voted for that president or not, to be a success. What you’re now seeing is that hope being lost. That’s the only way I would describe our relationship: pulling back a little bit. I thought everyone was way over their skis. You know how hard it is. I’ve lived through it. My father [former White House adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski] lived through it. It’s a living hell in there. I had some empathy for the transition, but now it’s just back to having to look at what is being done and said, and analyzing it for what it is.
Scarborough: Everyone wants the conclusion on Twitter today. Everybody wants the end of the story. Your relationship is – fill in the blank. You have to love Donald Trump and be a bumpkin or you have to hate Donald Trump and, if you are in the media, be on the side of right. Willie, Mika and I said on the air in the last month of the campaign that a lot of journalists seemed more interested in being able to tell their grandchildren in the future, ‘Yes, I helped stop Donald Trump,’ than they were in actually reporting the story straight without massive amounts of editorializing….Mika and I were hopeful, because we’ve known this guy for 10, 11 years, that he would deliver an inaugural address that would show that he was capable of growth. We were horrified three minutes in…
You can’t cheer against the president without cheering against the country that he runs. I felt that way about Barack Obama, whose policies I opposed. I feel that way about Donald Trump, whose policies I oppose. When you have a president calling the media “the enemy of the people” — using Stalinist terms that even Russia outlawed after Stalin died — when you have a sitting president question the legitimacy of a federal judge, then you start to have things unwind in front of your eyes that, if followed to their logical conclusion, would lead to constitutional crises. At that point, Mika and I said, you know, enough is enough.
I never lose hope. It’s the southern Baptist in me. We are all sinners, and a lot of grace is needed for all of us. I’m hopeful that Donald Trump will fire the right people and hire the right people, and maybe this will moderate a little bit moving forward. Right now, we consider this country to be in a state of crisis, because of some very disturbing decisions he has made.
Mika, your recent remarks about Kellyanne Conway carried a lot of weight. One could argue that her TV presence has diminished to a degree. Do you still feel the same way about having her on the air?
Brzezinski: I feel even more so that everyone should ban her. I’m surprised that these little acrobatic games are played with her on live national television. I think it denigrates what we do. It’s clear she doesn’t bring anything to the table. It’s clear she doesn’t know exactly what she’s talking about. It’s clear she’s making it up as she goes along.
Scarborough: Mika, she did teach us about microwaves.
Brzezinski: That’s true, and now my microwave is named Kellyanne. And every time I open it, which is frequently, because I don’t cook, I say, ‘Thank you, Kellyanne!’ But no, quite seriously, it’s unbelievable she has this job and what it says about this presidency that she has this job. Look, it’s not the most comfortable thing to do, but it’s something you just have to: You have to say, ‘This is garbage,’ and rip up the script, and you have to cut to the chase and cut through the b.s., and she brings nothing more to the table than a lot of that
In a recent interview with Variety, CNN president Jeff Zucker suggested your show was more interested in its relationship with the White House than the news. Is that a valid criticism?
Scarborough: It’s such a farce for Jeff Zucker to say that when all you have to do is look at our transcripts. We don’t give a damn about access to anybody. We don’t give a damn about going to Mar-a-Lago unless the story’s at Mar-a-Lago. If the story was at the batting cage of a spring training game in Florida, that’s where we would be. I challenge anybody to find two people that have been tougher on the president and still maintained access. The fact is we’ve been able to do that because we have a show that — at least inside this White House and the last White House — they believe that all the people [who] matter, [who] influence media throughout the day, [who] influence politics throughout the day, watched our show. Donald Trump didn’t want to talk to us because he liked us; he needed to talk to us because everyone from Paul Ryan to Chuck Schumer to Nancy Pelosi to Supreme Court justices to editors at The New York Times and Washington Post all watch our show.
How do you feel about reports that the president has stopped following you on Twitter?
Scarborough: That’s good news.
Brzezinski: It’s probably healthy.
Scarborough: This may sound condescending. Part of this is he’s never done this before. He doesn’t understand that you step into the White House and you get ripped to shreds whether you are Barack Obama or Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. We Republicans always think the press is harder on Republicans, but I remember Barack Obama who had one of the easiest coverage in the history of presidential runs, which I believe he did – but the second you walk through that gate on January 20, 2009, the press knocked his head off. They went after him non-stop. They did their jobs. And I think for Donald Trump, who once had to deal with the New York Times and a couple of New York tabloids, this is a lot. I don’t think he understands the role of the media and how adversarial it is for everybody.
How much time behind the scenes do you spend working out your take on the policies of the day? Or are viewers seeing you hash it out in real time?
Brzezinski: Do we prepare? No.
Scarborough: Not enough.
Brzezinski: We’ll call each other a lot on any day. ‘Oh my God, can you believe what happened?’ But we don’t prepare. We sort of let it be fresh. We are talking about things 24 hours a day. Who isn’t? I don’t know if that is tantamount to hashing things out. We certainly have a rhythm of watching the news and talking and connecting over it, but there isn’t’ a plan to prepare for every show. We just keep going.
You’ve been on the air for nearly a decade. Do you have any new ideas or concepts you’d like to try?
Brzezinski: I like vintage “Morning Joe.”… Tweaking a show is always the death of the show.
Scarborough: Every time we think of trying a new concept, or every time a consultant has come in with their ideas, if we ever move off center course, things always go badly. We always go back to basics, and the basics are Willie, Mika, and Joe talking about whatever we want to talk about.