Mika Brzezinski intermittently dabs makeup off her face for roughly 20 minutes, following the live broadcast of “Morning Joe,” the MSNBC show she cohosts with Joe Scarborough. With a measured tone, she laments the state of the country under President Trump from her office at NBC’s headquarters at 30 Rock in Manhattan, occasionally conferring with Scarborough, who is patched in via FaceTime on Brzezinski’s iPhone.
Rarely apart, Scarborough, who was in Washington, D.C., on this particular day, has been working with Brzezinski for the past nine years. Their cozy relationship has stirred rumors that the duo are more than just playing a couple on TV, and Brzezinski’s recent divorce has only added fuel to the fire. But the pair wasn’t too concerned, brushing off questions about any potential romantic relationship. Another inquiry, about whether their close relationship with Trump in some way represented the overstepping of a journalistic boundary, seemed more irritating in comparison.
But the duo eventually laughed that off, too, playing off each other as they do every morning on their show. That chemistry and the highly politicized moment America is experiencing have helped “Morning Joe” hit new ratings heights. In 2016, the program marked the biggest total and demo audiences in MSNBC’s 20-year history, topping third-place CNN for the seventh straight year in total viewers. Last month, the show ranked second among all cable networks in its time slot for total viewers of 849,000. What’s more, it posted more total viewers than CNN’s “New Day” for the 24th straight month.
Here, Brzezinski and Scarborough talk about their relationship with Trump — and each other — as well as the importance of female voices in media and politics, especially today.
WWD: How do you plan your shows given that every day there are several new Trump stories?
Mika Brzezinski: She’s assuming we plan. We have no plan, right Joe? We’re talking, for example, this weekend, we’re talking all weekend, or we’ll talk all day. We’ll be on the phone with different members of the administration. Joe will sometime be on the phone with Trump himself, depending on the week. It’s gotten really tough lately. There are a lot of people who are really nervous about what’s happening and they’re talking to us about what’s happening on the inside. We spend most of our days getting through the moment. When we’re on the air, we’re just responding to what the very latest is. It’s our show on high-octane because we’re never really that prepared, we’re ready to sort of respond viscerally and this presidency has taken that to a whole new level.
Joe Scarborough: What this presidency also requires that Barack Obama or George W. Bush did not require quite so much is putting things in proper context for our viewers and listeners. Things are coming at them so quickly. We try to sort it out for them and at least give an overview of what is highly unusual and what is more traditional in the sense of how administrations work and try to draw any historic parallels that we can.
WWD: How does the average person view all these stories from the Russian involvement in the election and fake news to Trump accusing Obama of tapping his phones? Is it just white noise?
M.B.: I guess it depends on what your definition of the average person is.
WWD: Someone who is not glued to the news.
M.B.: I’ve heard from a lot of people who are very nervous, and now they’re verbalizing it. I do think this plays to his base.
J.S.: There are still people who think he can do no wrong. If he says that Barack Obama tapped his phones in Trump Tower, chances are very good — I’ve got relatives who believe that happened just like Democrats believe the worst in George W. Bush. At some point, there was a poll that said one out of three Democrats believed that George W. Bush was behind the 9-11 attacks and knew about them. Unfortunately, that’s moved forward to this stage where not only do we have a good chunk of the population that’s politically paranoid, but we have a president now who is paranoid, and who is unfortunately pushing that world view. It makes the political situation all the more difficult.
WWD: How do you respond to your media colleagues criticizing you for being too close to Trump?
M.B.: Well, there are a couple of different narratives out there that have been planted by our competitor and some jealous people and a few that are just misunderstood. But the way I’ve finally figured out how to break it down is that there’s this narrative being pushed that we elected him. If we elected him, then that would mean that Trump supporters watch our show and we would have the number-one morning show in the world. I don’t think a majority of Trump voters watch “Morning Joe.” That’s not what the demographics that we have studied show us. I don’t think it’s physically possible. I think that we find ourselves in an unusual position where we’ve known the man for more than a decade before he even began to run for president. It creates some challenges and some dynamics that are never seen before, but some of these dynamics are age-old. Look at every reporter that has covered The White House and has books about Obama and books about Kennedy, and they hobnobbed on a high level. Joe and I don’t hobnob.
J.S.: They hobnobbed on a higher level. The only thing I’ll say is that we’ve known Donald Trump for 10 years — we’ve always been transparent about it — but also, Mika and I both called him a racist back in December of 2015. I said I could never vote for him after the Muslim ban, which was three months before the first Republican voted. I said I was voting for Jeb Bush; when Jeb dropped out, I said I was voting for John Kasich. I said he was unqualified to be president of the United States after he claimed that did not know David Duke of the Klan. We called him a racist after Judge Curiel, after the Khans. I’m not too sure — there is a narrative that we’re too cozy with him — but we called him a racist and a bigot pretty much nonstop for the past year-and-a-half, said we could never vote for him, said he was unqualified to be president.
WWD: Yet he still likes you guys.
M.B.: I don’t know why he still likes us.
J.S.: He still likes us but I think that points to the more complex part of the relationship that people don’t understand, which is that Donald Trump — and we have told him this through the year — he says, “You know I’m not a racist.” And we say, “Yes, Donald, you know you’re not a racist personally, but we know you play one on TV for votes, which is even more disturbing.” There has always been this disconnect between Donald Trump the person and the reality TV president. It is a role that he does play…even liberals who have known him for years say the same thing.
M.B.: It has never colored our ability to criticize him ever and our criticism is probably sharper because we are careful not to let the relationship we had before — whatever you want to call it — get in the way of what we feel is the truth.
J.S.: But I tell you, if my mother were running for president and talked about a Muslim ban, I’d call her a bigot. If my mother claimed she didn’t know who David Duke was when I knew she did, I’d say that’s disqualifying. If my mother called an Indiana judge a Mexican, I would say that’s a bigoted remark. Mika would say the same thing. We have said some very harsh things about Barack Obama, despite the fact that we’re very close friends with Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod and a lot of people who worked for Barack Obama. I absolutely tore George W. Bush to shreds, despite the fact I knew the guy personally and I actually campaigned for him in 2000. It’s our job to just call it like we see it whether these people are our friends or not. Mika, wouldn’t you agree that if we couldn’t talk straight about our friends, we wouldn’t have a show? We have a lot of friends in Washington.
M.B.: If you have a friend, and the friend was walking out of the building teetering, completely stoned and drop-down drunk, you would still be a friend to that person but you would try to take the keys away, wouldn’t you?
WWD: Yes, sure.
M.B.: So, I don’t understand the problem with the relationship. We’re doing our best to call it like it is. We’re doing our best to tell him when he’s wrong.
J.S.: But make no mistake, he is teetering out of the building.
M.B.: He’s drunk. He is loaded. He is so wasted — he’s vomiting all over the walls at this point. I’m serious.
J.S.: He is wasted as the captain of the ship of state, so like everybody else, we’re scared as hell.
WWD: It has been less than two months, can we last four years?
M.B.: I’m worried about an external factor, like a triggering event, something else happening. Then our entire country becomes open to worse outcomes. This has all been triggered from Trump in 45 days of his presidency, all the chaos has been triggered by him and his trigger finger on Twitter.
WWD: What about reporting on his social media, are some news organizations going too far by giving play-by-plays of his tweets?
M.B.: What choice do we have?
J.S.: I go back to context. People are just as outraged by an attack on Meryl Streep as they are by the federal judiciary. They are just as outraged by him insulting Arnold Schwarzenegger as him calling the media enemies of the people. I think our goal is to provide proper context. When the President of the United States attacks a movie star it is undignified and it casts a poor light on the United States of America. When the President of the United States attacks a sitting judge and questions his legitimacy, that actually can lead to a Constitutional crisis.
WWD: What do you make of Trump’s “fake news” accusations?
M.B.: Personally, I take unbelievable offense to the fake news line that he has come up with. You see him trying to undermine the judiciary and intelligence. He’s trying to do the same thing with the media. It makes our job even more important. I’m not trying to say we are important people. I mean, it’s important that we do a good job and it’s gotten harder because you can’t overreact. You can’t get over your skis. I’m worried about Democrats getting way ahead of their skis. At this point, we journalists or reporters or analysts or prognosticators, whatever you want to call us, we need to let the story speak for itself because it is frightening what is happening and we don’t need to make it worse. We need to report on it and call it out in a dignified way. It has become very hard to do that.
WWD: You banned Kellyanne Conway from your show. Is there ever a moment when you can see her coming back on?
M.B. and J.S.: No.
WWD: What about other Trump surrogates?
M.B.: I’m teetering about this Sarah Huckabee. They keep putting the women out to broom up the place and it’s sad. It’s getting to the point where the president and his spokespeople are not credible. I don’t know where this ends, honestly, but it’s impossible to put someone on who repeatedly is at the very least not credible, but is probably worse than that. It’s impossible to have a conversation with someone who comes in on the basis of not even being honest about supporting the candidate. [Conway] used to come on our show and hold her nose and talk about Trump and then take a deep breath and say, “Oh god, this is like summer school. I can’t wait until this is over.” By the end of campaign, she started calling him her client. She doesn’t believe in him, and now she’s propagating lies and going out there when she’s completely out of the know and just riffing, and trying to get around reporters and play word games with them. This is not what we’re about.
WWD: How has Washington changed, Mika, since the days when your father, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was working for the Carter administration?
M.B.: Joe and I both really have been chronicling the changes in Washington over time, and the biggest one is that people don’t really talk to each other. They talk at each other on the Internet and on TV, and they go to their corners. That’s the rise of different news organizations and web sites and extreme ideology kind of flying around on the airwaves. It used to be that we all used to go out to dinner together, and our kids all used to go to church together and the kids would play with each other. There was a certain joy in the process and a joy in the debate. That seems to be lost every step of the way. Would you agree, Joe?
J.S.: It certainly was that way when Mika was growing up and her father would always invite Democratic and Republican leaders over to the house, and so they were good friends with each other. It’s much harder to call someone a Nazi or a Communist from the House or Senate floor after you spent the weekend with them having dinner and your kids playing in the backyard. A lot of that changed when I came to Washington in 1994 and Newt Gingrich started telling us to go home immediately after the last vote, live in our districts and hold town hall meetings all the time, which would make it much harder to be defeated. And that’s what most of us did. My family stayed in the district. You would be up here [in D.C.] for three days and immediately get on the last plane on Thursday out and then you’d hold town hall meetings Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. It got to where nobody knew anybody on the other side and there were no friendships. The entire social fabric was torn apart of people in Washington, D.C., and because of that it was easier to make harsh personal attacks against the other side. I think that’s been the biggest problem of the last 20, 25 years. If I could wave a magic wand and change what’s happening in Washington, it would start with members of Congress living in Washington and living in neighborhoods and communities with people they worked with on the other side of the aisle because it made a big difference in how this place worked.
WWD: Mika, your book “Knowing Your Value,” which champions equality for women, particularly in the workplace, is very timely right now. Can you talk about that?
M.B.: I think the fight is harder than ever in some ways. We have an almost desperate need for more women to run for office and for more women to really gut it out after they have kids and stay in their jobs and get to high positions in companies. We need women at the top more than ever. We need women’s voices there because they are very different than men’s voices and they bring a very valuable and necessary point of view to the table. We’re sorely lacking it on many levels. They are propping up women right and left in the White House to look like they care but I’m not sure this president cares about anything. So, to the point of women, I think we’ve got a tough road ahead.
WWD: Everyone thought Hillary Clinton would be president, but you both showed some skepticism at the end. Why?
M.B.: There was a certain horror that I got for saying that [Trump could win] as a woman, a certain visceral reaction from the campaign, from women Democrats, who were just like, “How could you?” I got bullied at a party by high-ranking women Democrats because they just couldn’t believe that I would say that the Clinton campaign seemed very arrogant in its final weeks and that I was worried that it was not a done deal. For some reason, that was crossing some line. That in itself is a recipe for failure. You’ve never won anything. For me, the most successful women know that more than anybody because they are women, because we have to work harder, because we have to scratch deeper, because we have to make ourselves heard again and again and again, and somehow keep our s–t together in the process and not get mad that people aren’t listening to us. We have so much more to navigate. This campaign was on auto-pilot. Then there was the dynamic of who Trump was and what he brought to the table. There was a lack of self-awareness on the Bill and Hillary front that they were perhaps very vulnerable on a moral level.
WWD: Can you talk about your relationship and the news that has been around that?
M.B.: Is there news? We have an announcement.
J.S.: Well, Mika is a very strong cohost and we have an announcement. We are going to be calling the show “Morning Mika.” [Laughs].
M.B.: It’s old news. It’s old news.
J.S.: But on the personal front, we are the greatest of friends and it has just been extraordinary being able to work with Mika for the past nine years and I hope I get to work with her for the next nine years, plus, plus.
M.B.: I’ll let that be the comment.
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