It was August 2015 — two months into Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency — and the maverick GOP candidate was enjoying some friendly on-air banter with the hosts of one of his favorite cable TV shows.
“You’re saying such nice things this morning that I hate to break it up. I would rather just listen,” Trump told “Morning Joe” co-hosts Joe Scarborough and his then fiancée, Mika Brzezinski.
As odd as it sounds today, the exchange was emblematic of the relatively cozy dealings that Trump once had with the MSNBC hosts. But soon enough the relationship started to cool, before morphing into one of the most acrimonious blood feuds of the Trump presidency — a clash that is examined in detail in Thursday’s episode of “A Death in Florida,” a new three-part season of the Yahoo News podcast “Conspiracyland.”
As the 2016 campaign wore on, Scarborough became increasingly critical of Trump’s proposed Muslim ban and other issues, even mocking him in a rock song he recorded and posted on Facebook titled “Amnesty Don.”
When Trump had the couple to lunch during his first week in the White House, also inviting his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the president — bristling over how the media was calling him out for his false boasts about having had the largest inauguration crowd in history — got into a bitter argument with Scarborough over whether his first week in office had gone well.
It was all downhill from there.
“I think he’s such a narcissist. It is possible that he’s mentally ill in a way,” Brzezinski commented on “Morning Joe” in June 2017.
“He lies every day. A lot of times he lies every minute,” Scarborough added, which prompted Trump to fire back on Twitter.
“Psycho Joe,” the president called Scarborough in a Twitter thread that also claimed that when the couple came to see him at Mar-a-Lago over New Year’s Eve that year, Brzezinski was “bleeding badly from a face-lift.” (Brzezinski later called this a “lie,” saying she’d never had a face-lift.)
On one level, the clash between Trump and Scarborough is not unlike those the president has had with others in the media with whom he was once close. As an NBC executive in 2004, Jeff Zucker turned Trump into a TV star, placing his reality show “The Apprentice” on the network’s primetime lineup — only to be vilified by the president years later after Zucker had become the head of “fake news” CNN. The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman landed multiple exclusive interviews with Trump throughout the 2016 campaign and into his presidency, and was even photographed at one point with the president’s arm around her in the White House; Trump later denounced her as a “third rate reporter” who, he claimed, he didn’t “speak to and have nothing to do with.”
But the grudge match with Scarborough stands out. It prompted Trump to unleash one of his most extraordinary tweetstorms: a blistering series of tirades suggesting that Scarborough, then a congressman from Florida, had had an illicit affair with a staffer, Lori Klausutis, and then had her murdered. Those claims, put forth by the highest officeholder in the country, contain not a shred of evidence to back them up.
How strange is it to have a president appear to retaliate for negative press coverage by accusing a television host of murder? And how should the news media respond when this happens? Suddenly those questions could not be avoided.
“I mean, this is like Alex Jones territory,” said Jonathan Karl, ABC News’ chief White House correspondent, referring to the disgraced Austin, Texas-based conspiracy peddler, in an interview with “Conspiracyland.” “The way I looked at it, the president of the United States is outright accusing another person of murder! I mean, I was truly, truly blown away by the idea that he was doing this.”
Karl is one of a handful of reporters who pressed the White House to explain the president’s conspiratorial claims about Scarborough, but the genesis of that theory was sparked by Democratic activists and liberal bloggers who demanded that the media and authorities give the Republican Scarborough the same level of scrutiny over the death of Klausutis that Democratic Rep. Gary Condit was receiving for the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy the same year. (Although Condit had been having an affair with Levy, there was never any evidence he had anything to do with her disappearance. Her body was later found in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, and another suspect was eventually charged with her murder.)
Among those on the left who raised the issue over the years, starting in 2005 and again in 2010, was Markos Moulitsas, a progressive activist and founder of the popular Daily Kos blog, who argued that the media was giving Scarborough a pass over the death of Klausutis because it was biased in favor of Republicans. In an interview with “Conspiracyland,” Moulitsas stood by everything he had written and said about the case over the years, insisting that “the facts were fairly similar” to those in the Condit-Levy story. “You had a campaign or staff employee die under mysterious conditions,” he said.
When it was pointed out that the facts were not, in fact, that similar — Klausutis was not an intern, wasn’t having an affair with Scarborough (who barely knew her) and died from an undiagnosed medical condition with no evidence of foul play — Moulitsas grew testy. He insisted his only point was to call attention to what he perceived to be pro-Republican bias by the media. “Oh, my f***ing God, are you serious?” he said. “My point, which I’ve made several times ... was that Joe Scarborough, had he been a Democrat, that would have been a story. I’m not saying it should have been a story.”
While the conspiracy theories about Klausutis had circulated at a low level on social media over the years, it was Trump — seeking revenge against Scarborough — who turned them into a media firestorm. After his feud with the TV anchor started, the president at first referred to the matter in a tweet on Nov. 29, 2017: “Will they terminate low ratings Joe Scarborough based on the ‘unsolved mystery’ that took place in Florida years ago? Investigate!”
The Daily Beast has since reported that Trump went even further behind the scenes, fuming about Scarborough and directing his son-in-law Kushner to reach out to David Pecker, who until recently was the publisher of the National Enquirer, to pressure him to drum up a story on Klausutis’s death. The White House denied that report. But Scarborough, who declined to be interviewed for “Conspiracyland,” and Brzezinski have written that they were warned by White House officials in 2017 that the National Enquirer was planning to publish an unflattering story unless they “begged” the president to have it spiked.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht told “Conspiracyland” that he was indeed contacted by the Enquirer that year asking him if he found anything suspicious about the Klausutis case and the official finding from a 2001 autopsy report that her death resulted from an undiagnosed heart condition.
“I recall receiving an email, or a phone call, asking me if I would be willing to review an autopsy report and express my opinion,” Wecht said. “The contact was from the National Enquirer. Then they sent me the autopsy report on a young woman, which I reviewed. I then called them back and gave them my opinion. I told them that I had no basis or reason following my review of the report to express a different opinion. I thought the autopsy was complete. The discussion was thorough and extensive, and I felt that the findings were correct.”
The National Enquirer, which did not respond to requests for comment, never published a story on Klausutis, apparently concluding that the conspiracy theory being pushed by the president didn’t meet its standards. But unbowed, Trump would return to the issue once again, two and a half years later, just as “Morning Joe” was about to score a journalistic coup.
In late April 2020, the presidential campaign of Joe Biden was feeling some heat. A former aide, Tara Reade, had gone public with claims that she had been sexually assaulted by Biden when she worked for him on his Senate staff in the 1990s. With pressure mounting for the former vice president to respond publicly, the campaign made a strategic decision: Biden would grant an exclusive interview to “Morning Joe” on May 1 to address the charges.
By most accounts, Biden’s forceful denial of the charges on the MSNBC show — combined with new questions about Reade’s narrative — essentially squelched what had looked briefly like a potential threat to his candidacy. But the campaign’s decision to have Biden address the issue on “Morning Joe” appeared to have further enraged Trump. Even before the interview took place, Trump revived his interest in Klausutis’s death, tweeting early on the morning of April 30 about “Psycho Joe ‘What Ever Happened To Your Girlfriend?’ Scarborough.” The president’s son Donald Jr. also weighed in that evening. “What show is Joe going to go on to discuss Lori Klausutis?” he tweeted.
If Biden’s appearance on “Morning Joe” wasn’t enough to upset the president, within a few days there were reports that the show’s ratings — a marker Trump follows closely — soared to the point that they were nearly equal those of “Fox & Friends,” his preferred morning talk show. Whatever the trigger, Trump was just getting started.
“‘Concast,’” Trump tweeted on May 4 in reference to Comcast, the media giant that owns NBC and MSNBC, “should open up a long overdue Florida Cold Case against Psycho Joe Scarborough. I know him and Crazy Mika well, used them beautifully in the last Election, dumped them nicely, and will state on the record that he is ‘nuts’. Besides, bad ratings! #OPENJOECOLDCASE”
A week later, Trump was still simmering. “When will they open a Cold Case on the Psycho Joe Scarborough matter in Florida,” he tweeted on May 12. “Did he get away with murder? Some people think so. Why did he leave Congress so quietly and quickly? Isn’t it obvious? What’s happening now? A total nut job!”
On May 20, Trump complained that his longtime political adviser Roger Stone — convicted of lying to Congress and witness intimidation — had been treated unfairly, while “guys like Low Ratings Psycho Joe Scarborough are allowed to walk the streets? Open Cold Case!”
And on May 23 he kept at it, tweeting, “A blow to her head? Body found under his desk? Left Congress suddenly? Big topic of discussion in Florida...and, he’s a Nut Job (with bad ratings). Keep digging, use forensic geniuses!”
As the coronavirus pandemic worsened in April and May and a crippling economic recession took hold, the president of the United States found time to fire off 10 tweets about the supposed murder of a young woman 19 years ago despite the fact that no evidence has been put forth to show that the crime actually took place.
Reading the president’s words and obsessing over them down in Florida was T.J. Klausutis, an Air Force engineer and Lori Klausutis’s widower. He had been anguished about the conspiracy theories over his wife’s death for years and tried his best to put a stop to them, flagging outrageously false tweets to Twitter and trying to get them taken down. But the president’s sudden promotion of the conspiracy theories sent him over the edge.
“It got to the point that I literally could not stomach this,” he said in an exclusive interview with “Conspiracyland.” “When Lori and I got married, we agreed for a lifelong partnership. And that we were going to care and were going to protect each other. And honestly, I just wanted one victory and just say, ‘Look, this has to stop.’”
So Klausutis did something he had been thinking about for years: He reached out to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, writing a poignant plea from the heart to remove the president’s hurtful and false words from the company’s global platform. It was a letter that would resonate far more than he ever imagined.
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