Attacks on Joe Scarborough Draw Criticism From Trump’s Media Allies

Some of President Trump’s most stalwart media defenders broke ranks with him on Wednesday, aghast at his baseless smears against the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, whom Mr. Trump has all but accused of killing a former staff member two decades ago despite a total lack of evidence.

The backlash even spread to the senior levels of Mr. Trump’s party on Capitol Hill, where the No. 3 House Republican, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, said the president should drop the matter and focus on leading the country through the coronavirus pandemic. “I would urge him to stop it,” she told reporters, referring to the false allegations.

The vast majority of Republican officials have kept silent about the president’s Twitter barrage against Mr. Scarborough, and the most prominent conservative voices on Fox News, like Sean Hannity, let the subject go unmentioned on recent broadcasts.

But Ms. Cheney’s criticism was a sign of stepped-up pressure on Mr. Trump from the right, reflected in this week’s unusual chorus of reproach from the conservative media platforms the president often turns to for comfort.

The New York Post, Mr. Trump’s first read in the morning, lamented in Wednesday’s paper that the president “decided to suggest that a TV morning-show host committed murder. That is a depressing sentence to type.” In a staff editorial, The Post addressed its most powerful reader directly: “Trust us, you did not look like the bigger man.”

The Washington Examiner, a popular conservative news site, published a scathing article calling Mr. Trump’s attacks “incompatible with leadership” and “vile.” Mr. Trump is usually enamored of The Examiner, one of the few news sites to which he routinely grants interviews, including one this month.

And the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, a bellwether of establishment conservatism, called Mr. Trump’s unfounded accusation against Mr. Scarborough “ugly even for him.”

“We don’t write this with any expectation that Mr. Trump will stop,” The Journal wrote in its editorial. “Perhaps he even thinks this helps him politically, though we can’t imagine how. But Mr. Trump is debasing his office, and he’s hurting the country in doing so.”

If the blowback affected Mr. Trump, the president has not shown it. He taunted Mr. Scarborough — a former Republican congressman and one-time social acquaintance of Mr. Trump who is now one of his harshest TV critics — again on Wednesday in a tweet that referred to a “Cold Case.”

The president’s attacks have caused anguish to the family of Lori Klausutis, the staff member in Mr. Scarborough’s former congressional office who died in 2001 when a heart condition caused her to fall and hit her head on a desk. Mr. Scarborough was not present and the police ruled her death an accident. Ms. Klausutis’s relatives have said that the president’s evocation of her death and his unfounded insinuation that she had an affair with Mr. Scarborough have caused them deep distress.

Senator Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican and a frequent Trump critic, tweeted on Wednesday in support of her widower, T.J. Klausutis. “His heart is breaking,” Mr. Romney wrote. “Enough already.” Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, told reporters on Wednesday that the president’s claims were “out of bounds,” adding, “there’s no evidence.”

Another House Republican, Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, used Twitter to implore Mr. Trump to halt his attacks. “Completely unfounded conspiracy,” he wrote. “Just stop. Stop spreading it, stop creating paranoia. It will destroy us.”

Other prominent Republicans have avoided publicly criticizing Mr. Trump on the matter. The House minority leader, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, sidestepped questions from reporters on Wednesday by saying he had not served in Congress with Mr. Scarborough, who represented Florida in the House from 1995 to 2001.

Mr. Trump is accustomed to — and often relishes — taking flak from critics in the press. And this is not the first time that pro-Trump media outlets have balked at the president’s more outlandish behavior.

When The Journal criticized Mr. Trump in April for his freewheeling coronavirus briefings, the president spat back on Twitter, writing, “WSJ is Fake News!” As is the case at many newspapers, The Journal’s editorial page operates separately from its newsroom. But its unsigned editorials are closely followed by readers and politicians alike, because they carry the institutional weight of a formidable organization.

On Fox News, where pro-Trump cheerleading is a staple of morning and evening programming, Mr. Scarborough’s name did not surface during Tuesday’s prime-time shows: the MSNBC host went unmentioned by Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson. (Fox News, The Post and The Journal are all controlled by the family of Rupert Murdoch.)

Bret Baier reported on the controversy on his Tuesday newscast with the Fox News media analyst Howard Kurtz, who offered sympathy to the Klausutis family. “The president and the cable host are accustomed to public combat,” Mr. Kurtz said. “But a man who lost his wife years ago never wanted the spotlight.”

Mr. Trump has ramped up his accusations about Mr. Scarborough over the past month, apparently in response to the host’s on-air criticism of the White House coronavirus response. On his Sunday Fox News show, “Media Buzz,” Mr. Kurtz offered a tempered view of Mr. Trump’s behavior.

“Now, I can’t defend the president suggesting without a shred of evidence that a cable news guy, however rough his criticism, might be linked to murder,” Mr. Kurtz told viewers. “But I also don’t think the president of the United States should be barred from communicating with his 80 million Twitter followers. People are smart enough to make up their own minds about his controversial tweets.”

Howard Polskin, who compiles a daily newsletter, TheRighting, that tracks conservative news outlets, said he found The Examiner’s anti-Trump editorial noteworthy. “When I saw The Examiner one, my head snapped back,” he said in an interview.

But Mr. Polskin wondered if the negative focus on Mr. Trump’s comments could ultimately redound to the president’s benefit.

“Trump opening up this front with Joe Scarborough is another thing in the news cycle, another thing for people to talk about,” Mr. Polskin said. “It occupies time on the talk shows. It gets people away from that 100,000 figure,” referring to the estimated number of Americans who have died from coronavirus.

“Trump’s a master at that,” he added. “Throwing out these bright, shiny diversions.”

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