In the aftermath of the vicious tweets against MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, there was an intriguing allegation that three top Trump Administration officials called Joe Scarborough and threatened that, if he did not call Trump to apologize for his negative comments, the National Enquirer would run a hit piece on the hosts. The allegation is deeply troubling and, while it would not necessarily constitute a crime, it would raise a serious question of abuse of office in the use of staff to convey such an alleged threat. With all of the understandable passion following the tweets. this is a very significant allegation and one that was not previously disclosed. It has not appeared in both print and on air by the hosts, who are obviously sticking by this chilling account of what they say was a campaign to intimidate them. The White House has denied the allegations and said that Scarborough has misrepresented his call to the White House.
Trump has a close friendship with National Enquirer’s chief executive officer David Pecker and the publication was accused of publishing hit pieces against Trump’s opponents like Ted Cruz during the 2016 campaign.
The couple wrote in the Washington Post that “This year, top White House staff members warned that the National Enquirer was planning to publish a negative article about us unless we begged the president to have the story spiked. We ignored their desperate pleas.” Later they expanded on the allegation on-air:
“We got a call that ‘hey the National Enquirer is going to run a negative story about you guys.’ And they said ‘if you call the president up and you apologize for your coverage then he would pick up the phone and basically spike this story’ . . .I had three people at the very top of the administration calling me and the response was like ‘are you kidding me, I don’t know what they have, run a story, I’m not going to do it.’ The calls kept coming and they were like ‘you need to call, please call.’”
Scarborough also said that he has contemporary witnesses who were consulted after the calls:
“NBC execs knew in real time about the calls and who made them to me. That’s why Mark Kornblau wrote about contemporaneous texts. I showed him and executives as they were coming in to keep them advised.”
The allegation does not currently rise to a criminal matter, if proven. However, government officials are the subject of specific criminal provisions like extortion under 18 U.S.C. 872:
Whoever, being an officer, or employee of the United States or any department or agency thereof, or representing himself to be or assuming to act as such, under color or pretense of office or employment commits or attempts an act of extortion, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both; but if the amount so extorted or demanded does not exceed $1,000, he shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.
Such provisions convey the heightened danger of criminal conduct committed by those with official authority. However, extortion is commonly prosecuted when someone is seeking the gaining of property or money. That pecuniary interest is the key, though the threat can include harm to reputation or unfavorable government action.
Likewise, blackmail often involves efforts to secure money or financial benefits and a violation of federal law: “Whoever, under a threat of informing, or as a consideration for not informing, against any violation of any law of the United States, demands or receives any money or other valuable thing, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.” There was no violation of any law threatened in this allegation.
There is the Abuse of Office provision that can be relevant in such a circumstance:
§ 11.448 Abuse of office.
A person acting or purporting to act in an official capacity or taking advantage of such actual or purported capacity commits a misdemeanor if, knowing that his or her conduct is illegal, he or she:
(a) Subjects another to arrest, detention, search, seizure, mistreatment, dispossession, assessment, lien or other infringement of personal or property rights; or
(b) Denies or impedes another in the exercise or enjoyment of any right, privilege, power or immunity.
Subsection (b) could apply to the right of both free speech and the free press if officials were seeking to silence critics.
There could be more potential criminal elements but the current allegation likely falls short. While such an allegation fits more squarely with an impeachment charge as opposed to a criminal charge, it could not be more serious for a country that has always jealously protected both free speech and the free press. If Administration officials were using their time and offices to convey threats to journalists or commentators, it would constitute a direct assault on those values.
Obviously, we should hear from the White House on the allegation. Trump has stated that it was the hosts who called him to kill the story. They may argue that they had been called on the story and were giving the hosts a courtesy warning (not uncommon in this town). However, that would not square with the alleged “ask”: that the hosts call Trump to apologize in return for the killing of the story. The White House maintains that it was Scarborough who called Kushner to kill the story and it was Scarborough who raised the fact that Trump was mad at him.
These are obviously strikingly different accounts. This should be treated as a serious matter for inquiry by Congress which has oversight authority over federal offices and agencies. Such a quip pro quo may be the stuff of an entertaining “House of Cards” episode but it is far more serious in real life when government officials, or even the President of the United States, is allegedly trying to coerce media figures into silence. Again, there is another side to this story but I am surprised that the allegation has not attracted more attention.
What do you think?