"Morning Joe" hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, a couple onscreen and off, say the White House told them a damaging National Enquirer story about their relationship would "go away" if they called the president and apologized for harsh commentary.
President Donald Trump and Scarborough each traded accusations that the other was lying as the bizarre feud between the leader of the free world and two cable television hosts persisted on Friday.
The MSNBC hosts made their claim while responding to Trump's previous tweet that "crazy" Brzezinski was "bleeding badly from a face-lift" when he saw her at his Florida estate just before the New Year. Thursday's message on social media drew widespread condemnation as sexist and vulgar, even from some of the president's Republican supporters.
Brzezinski and Scarborough, both divorced, revealed their engagement in a May 4 Vanity Fair article. Their relationship was even spoofed on "Saturday Night Live," with a skit depicting the lovebirds horrifying co-workers with their behavior.
Behind the scenes, though, the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer was in the midst of what it later described as "an exhausting months-long probe" into the relationship. Brzezinski said it involved phone calls to her teenage daughter and a reporter staked out outside her home.
The calls from the White House came in early spring. Scarborough said that he was told that, "if you call the president up and apologize for the coverage, then he would pick up the phone and spike the story." To "spike" a story is journalism slang for killing it. Scarborough said three people at the "very top" of the administration talked to him about the matter.
Trump and the two hosts were once friendly, and "Morning Joe" drew criticism for positive coverage of early stages of Trump's campaign. Their relationship soured as the commentary turned negative, and Trump targeted them on social media. Brzezinski has recently questioned Trump's mental health, suggested the country was slipping into a dictatorship and mocked Trump for fake Time magazine covers with his face hung in some golf facilities.
A recent New Yorker magazine article detailed a close relationship between Trump and David Pecker, chief executive of the Enquirer's parent company, and how the supermarket tabloid has lauded Trump and printed damaging articles about his political opponents.
Trump, who said he watched "Morning Joe" on Friday, tweeted a direct contradiction to Scarborough's claim. He said the MSNBC host "called me to stop a National Enquirer article. I said no!"
Scarborough later tweeted that he had phone and text messages from presidential aides to prove his point, and that he hasn't spoken to Trump in many months.
"Why do you keep lying about things that are so easily disproven?" Scarborough tweeted. "What is wrong with you?"
Dylan Howard, chief content officer and vice president at the Enquirer's parent company, American Media, Inc., said the newspaper has no knowledge of or involvement in any discussions between the White House and the "Morning Joe' host about the story.
"At no time did we threaten either Joe or Mika or their children in connection with our reporting on the story," Howard said.
The Enquirer article was published on June 5 under the headline "'Morning Joe' Sleazy Cheating Scandal."
Trump on Thursday had launched a crude Twitter attack on the brains, looks and temperament of Brzezinski, drawing bipartisan howls of outrage and leaving fellow Republicans beseeching him: Stop, please just stop.
Trump's tweets revived concerns about his views of women in a city where civility already is in short supply and he is struggling for any support he can get for his proposals on health care, immigration and other controversial issues.
"I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don't watch anymore)," Trump tweeted to his nearly 33 million followers Thursday morning. "Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year's Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!"
The tweets served to unite Democrats and Republicans for once in a chorus of protest that amounted to perhaps the loudest outcry since Trump took office.
"Obviously I don't see that as an appropriate comment," said Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called Trump's tweets, "blatantly sexist." The president, she added, "happens to disrespect women ... it's sad."
In television interviews Friday, Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Trump, sent conflicting messages about whether Trump was justified in his tweet. She said he had the right to fight back when attacked by critics. But when pressed on ABC's "Good Morning America," she said: "I didn't say I endorsed his attacks; I never said that. Bottom line, I endorse his ability to connect on social media with Americans."
Trump's allies cast his outburst as positive, an example of his refusal to be bullied.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president was "pushing back against people who have attacked him day after day after day. Where is the outrage on that?"
"The American people elected a fighter; they didn't elect somebody to sit back and do nothing," she added.
On the usually friendly Fox News Channel Thursday night, hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity did not defend the president's tweet but criticized the media reaction. "Washington melts down over Trump tweet," read the onscreen chyron during Carlson's show.
AP correspondent Kenneth Thomas in Washington contributed to this report