It was Joe Scarborough’s 53rd birthday, April 9, 2016, and his youngest child, an 8-year-old boy named Jack, was trying to tell him something. “Dad, look at the birthday cake,” he said. The cake was in the shape of a small mammal, resting on a bed of artificially green coconut shavings, its body frosted vanilla white and its floppy ears studded with Smarties. Fourteen candles stuck out of its back, with another stabbed into the center of its head like some kind of sugary acupuncture experiment. Scarborough’s girlfriend, Mika Brzezinski, had baked it from a boxed Duncan Hines mix and then, being the daughter of a sculptor, carved it up with a knife. The result was part Peter Cottontail, part Donnie Darko. At first glance, Scarborough didn’t read much into it, but with growing frustration, Jack repeated himself: “Dad, look at the birthday cake!” Then it hit him: The cake was a clue about his present. “Oh my God,” he said. “Mika did not get me a rabbit. She got me a rabbit?!”
He sighed as he told me this story earlier this month, his tiny eyes rolling back into his head at the memory. “So, she got me a rabbit.”
At six-foot-three, or eight-foot-nine including the hair, Scarborough looks like Jimmy Neutron in his Lizard King phase or Tucker Carlson after someone put him through a taffy-pulling machine. No matter the shoe, he never wears socks, displaying a pair of glistening ankles at all times. Brzezinski is five-foot-six and the unusually even color of a vizsla puppy, her blinding hair a cross between Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy’s and Polly Pocket’s. Together, they achieve a kind of strange aesthetic perfection — the decorative figurines topping the bunny cake that is political media in Trump’s America.
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Jack suggested naming the actual animal Fluffy, but his 12-year-old sister, Kate, had another idea: name it after Donald Trump, who was then something of a family friend and, surprisingly, close to securing the Republican nomination. “Okay,” Scarborough said, “we’ll call it Donald Fluffy Trump.”
In the end, the union of Donald Fluffy Trump and Joe Scarborough wouldn’t last. Brzezinski was skeptical, but Scarborough insisted Donald Fluffy Trump kept scratching him, and so he banished it from his home in Connecticut (where there was a cat, Oliver Meatball Scarborough; a dog, Scout; and four chickens: Napoleon, Sal, Iris, and S.E.S.) to live at hers, the land-bound Noah’s Ark of Westchester, where there were two dogs (Cajun and Hobson); two cats (Elle and Emma); 11 chickens (Pierre, Olivia, Donna, Nugget, Gina, Baby Bumba, Tammy, Jeremih, Graham, Esther, and Marta); and another rabbit they sometimes called Ducky.
It was when Ducky met Donald Fluffy Trump that it first became clear nothing was quite what it seemed. “We found out that Donald Trump was actually Melania Trump,” Scarborough said. “The rabbit comes to my house, and my little, tiny black rabbit … starts … mounting,” Brzezinski recalled, horrified. “I called Joe. I’m like, ‘Uh-oh,’ because Ducky, at that point, was on top of what we thought was Donald. Off the record,” she joked, “they were having so much sex I had to put them in separate pens.”
Donald Fluffy Trump was renamed Melania, and Ducky was renamed Donald Fluffy Trump, but the tangle of furry confusion continued. “I still honestly think they go both ways,” Brzezinski said. “At one point, Joe sent me a Snapchat and Donald was on top, and then he sent me another one and Melania was!” She added, “Every time I turn, there’s someone else on top.”
It’s true for rabbits, and true for anyone flying close to the sun in Donald Trump’s America — particularly if they appear on television. And if it hadn’t been obvious before, by the morning of June 29 — when the president falsely accused Brzezinski of bleeding all over his Palm Beach country club while recovering from a face-lift — it was clear that Joe and Mika had become satellite antagonists in the ensemble cast of the Trump-administration soap opera, which plays out on TV, online, and in print each day. But why, exactly, their previously cozy relationship with the president had changed, and what the nature of that coziness was to begin with, depends a lot on which side you ask.
How did this camp tragicomedy begin? For years now, Morning Joe, which airs weekdays on MSNBC from 6 to 9 a.m. and in September will celebrate its tenth anniversary, has been the preferred programming of the political elite. Pundits and experts and people presenting as experts clamor to appear alongside the famous-for-journalism cast of regulars and visitors who sit in the round and converse freely, asking one another questions and playfully arguing in what is designed to feel like a breakfast conversation among eggheaded family members. The hosts have come to seem like a kind of political royalty: Betsy Rothstein, Washington’s premier and also virtually only gossip columnist, told me that in the “bubble” and among a certain breed of D.C. type, “they are highly praised — I mean, how else do you get on a show like this unless you sufficiently suck up to the hosts?” It’s an effective formula, and for ten years, “other than the size of my and Joe’s hair and maybe Mika’s haircut, not much has changed,” Willie Geist, their co-host, told me.
But suddenly, the politics did. Early in last year’s Republican-primary season, Morning Joe distinguished itself by treating Trump as a plausible nominee and offering some favorable appraisals of his campaign, comparing the phenomenon of his candidacy to Reagan, coverage that drew criticism but turned out to be prescient. Then, beginning in the summer, something shifted, in particular with Scarborough — once a conservative Republican congressman who modeled himself as a “little Newt” but who has gradually morphed on television into a Reasonable Centrist Host. He began warning that Trump was unfit for the presidency and, once he became president anyway, amplified the disarray within the White House. Recently, Joe left the GOP and announced he was an Independent. And, most offensive to the White House and its allies, he and Brzezinski have repeatedly questioned his soundness of mind.
A cynic might say that Joe and Mika’s reversal on the Donald is evidence of savvy, that they just know when to buy and when to sell. But they are genuinely emotional when they discuss him on air, though with contrasting perspectives: Scarborough remains confident that the American system will ultimately survive and defeat what he sees as the threat from Trump, while Brzezinski, a Democrat who often calls Trump’s behavior and statements “disgusting,” worries that the entire republic could vanish within his term.
One of the great oddities of Morning Joe has been the are-they-or-aren’t-they dynamic of its hosts, who finally emerged as a real-life couple in May of this year. But that drama quickly became just subtext for viewers; recently, the biggest draw has been the drama of their relationship with the president, unraveling in real time (the show’s audience has grown 50 percent since last year). In the deranged reality-television solar system that contains the press and the new presidency, Scarborough and Brzezinski deliver black comedy with a lot of plot. This has made Morning Joe the best place to begin assessing the state of White House palace intrigue on any given day — not a frivolous pursuit, since every policy fight is transacted through perpetually shifting hierarchies. Astonishingly, for the first time in American history, the president is as likely to take time out of his schedule to lance news personalities as he is to condemn the country’s foreign adversaries. And so contemplating the existence of the people yammering on TV is no superficial task, for they’re yammering directly into his head. “He watches, says he doesn’t watch, and then he freaks out with what he sees,” Scarborough told me. “We think it’s in the best interest of the country for him to stop watching our show.”
The White House official remarked that the president told Scarborough he didn’t think Miller deserved the criticism. “The president was like, ‘I’m the fucking president. I take responsibility for this. Stop talking about my staff,’ ” the official remembered. “It was very endearing, actually, and nobody would ever give him credit for that, but he was really taking responsibility and trying to protect Stephen, which was lovely because they had been really personal to him.” This kind of fatherly defense of staff the president believes to be under siege has become standard in the early stages of the administration.
Brzezinski hasn’t seen the president since that lunch. But according to the White House, Scarborough spoke to him on the phone a few days later, after Trump had selected his Supreme Court nominee. “That was a presidential event; that was how you should act!” the White House claimed Scarborough said. “You looked amazing, I loved your tie.” But both Scarborough and Brzezinski said that account is false. “I have no idea what he is talking about,” Brzezinski said. Although, Scarborough added: “It wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities that I would call him up.”
In February, Scarborough saw the president a final time, when Jared Kushner invited him back to the scene of the lunch. At first Scarborough said “I don’t remember” when I asked why Kushner had wanted him to visit, but then Brzezinski reminded him: “I think he wanted you and Donald to start talking again.” Scarborough agreed: “Jared’s always the one that tries to bring us back together.” Why that’s the case, he said, “you’d have to ask Jared.” But it’s perplexing because “it never ends well, so I don’t know why they think that, and, again, I don’t know why anybody thinks, in either party, that we’re ever going to pull a punch, because we just never do.But, again, I think the biggest shock for Donald — for the president — is that, regardless of whether we saw him or not, we were going to say whatever we wanted to say.”
Their next exchange took place in front of the whole world, beginning at 8:52 a.m. on June 29, when Morning Joe was in a commercial break.
Scarborough had decided to give the end of the show over to Brzezinski so he could, depending on which version of events you believe, sleep or make some important calls. (“He fell asleep,” Brzezinski told me. “First of all, I wasn’t asleep,” Scarborough said later.) On set, Brzezinski recalled, “everyone started acting really weird.” In the control room, Alex Korson, the executive producer, saw a notification on his phone: The president had tweeted. “I heard poorly rated
Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came..” The ellipsis suggested more would be coming soon. “I just knew that the next part was going to be something potentially pretty epic,” Korson told me. “I just had a feeling.”
For months, the president had been gossiping about Brzezinski’s alleged cosmetic procedures — the next morning on air, she proudly acknowledged having had work done, though not the full face-lift the president talked about — and I’d even heard his story myself weeks prior, after he’d dished about it to a group of congressmen. But in an act of what I guess you could call restraint, he’d kept it out of the press, or perhaps he was just waiting for exactly the right moment, which happened to be 8:58. Geist was on set with Brzezinski when it happened. “The second one popped up, and I went, ‘Oh, shit. This isn’t just about something we said on the show. This is something deeply personal and deeply ugly,’ ” he remembered.
“I handed her my phone,” Geist said, “and her first reaction, in classic Mika fashion, was to just laugh derisively at how sad it was that the president said that.”
Brzezinski recalled that “everyone looked really uncomfortable in the newsroom. They were all averting their eyes. I was like, ‘It’s funny!’ ” When pressed, she admitted to being made to feel slightly “self-conscious,” but that’s all. “I was like, Do I have a huge growth coming out of my head?” Her struggles with body image have long been a part of her public persona — she even wrote a book, Obsessed, about her eating disorder. “I’m glad I’m at kind of a more confident, comfortable place in my life,” she told me. “I think if this had happened when I was, like, 30, it might’ve been really painful, but I’m 50. And I’ve been through stuff that matters, you know? So it is just face-shaming. It’s just so silly. It’s unbelievable.”
She added that she wasn’t personally hurt by it: “It’s just another thing you put on the shelf of sadness about this presidency.” Scarborough laughed. “The shelf of sadness, I like that. The wall of shame and the shelf of sadness.”
In the end, Brzezinski said, “Who cares? We’ve been through a lot with this guy.”
And for now, that is the soap opera of Joe and Mika and Donald. As for the soap opera of just Joe and Mika — well, the truth is, the president has a role in that too.
“We knew early on that we clicked on TV,” Scarborough said, and until recently the pair was most comfortable discussing their chemistry within the context of the show. They say they first met at the old MSNBC studios in Secaucus, and Scarborough has often talked about how he was sure he’d found his co-host when he asked Brzezinski to explain why, when doing news-break cut-ins, she used a caustic lilt when saying Scarborough Country (his old show on the network). Her retort was perfect: “How can I make fun of a show I’ve never seen?” And that flirtatious, cat-and-mouse and mouse-and-cat dynamic has greeted Americans getting ready for work every morning since.
“The thing Joe and I both appreciated about Mika was she was just going to give you shit no matter what,” Geist told me. They share a small office with desks two feet away from each other, and Nora Ephron once described the show as a romantic comedy and Joe and Mika as “a temporary couple on air.” Which makes Geist something of a third wheel, though he says he’s fine with that: “Two people in a relationship is a more interesting story than two people in a relationship and then this … other guy.” After the very first episode, Scarborough said, “People were calling Mika, saying, ‘When did you work with this guy before?’ ‘How long have you known this guy?’ She was like, ‘I just met him yesterday.’ ”
It wasn’t until last summer that their relationship became public — when Trump, against their wishes, took it upon himself to make the announcement. “Some day, when things calm down, I’ll tell the real story of
morningmika. Two clowns!” he tweeted on August 22. It was punishment for their lack of loyalty.
Because Joe and Mika are perhaps the only masochists alive who operate on this schedule and spend this much time together (a 6–to–9 a.m. show; up as late as 10 p.m., crisscrossing the Northeast corridor for meetings, events, and speeches), it can feel as though they exist in their own private universe. Except they don’t. Between them breathes a sprawling web of three ex-spouses and six children, ranging in age from 9 to 29 (Scarborough quietly divorced his second wife in 2013, while Brzezinski’s marriage ended in 2015). It has historically been a preoccupation for them, then, to keep the matter of their relationship and its inconvenient origins out of the press, which they achieved with near-total success — something one New York tabloid veteran told me was astonishing and “a lesson for everyone” in how to “tame the gossips.” “I think of the gossip world as extremely transactional, and they were very good at dealing with it,” the veteran told me. “They are total operators: They weren’t above trading one item for another. They took their own PR into their own hands.” (Which wasn’t an entirely new strategy for Scarborough: In the late 1990s, while serving in Congress, he ran a tabloid, the Florida Sun, in which he penned copy under various pseudonyms like Esther Bankhead, a fictional “Central Alabama Demolition Derby Champion 1961–1964,” and Izzy Walser, at turns described as a “national affairs correspondent,” “religion writer,” and, in one story, an “olfactory correspondent.”) Their control of their image is impressive in its efficiency, and they are intensely particular about even the minor details of the show. But whatever else you think of them, you’ve gotta take beauty where you can find it these days, and these are two people who really fucking love each other. When I asked Brzezinski if there was a moment when she knew, but told her she didn’t need to specify the time frame, she said, “There was a moment, and it was alarming. Complicated and alarming.”
“This is really way more than I want to say,” she admitted. “I’ve got people I care about who will read this and — but, yeah. There definitely was a moment where I realized. And it was hard.” She added that it hurts when people “attack my life and decisions I’ve made in my life that they know nothing about and make up things about what’s actually going on in my life.” Which was precisely Trump’s aim. A senior White House official referred to his decision to out them as the “most important” juncture in their protracted feud. “He wanted people to see that. The description was deliberate.”
“It caused a lot of pain,” Brzezinski said.
At Brzezinski’s childhood home in Virginia, hidden away in a maze of leafy back roads and long, private driveways, Scarborough was sitting at a table on the porch. Drinking lemonade and avoiding a plate of cookies, he was ready to talk. “Guys are really interesting,” he told me. “Women understand from a pretty early age that at some point they’re gonna die. Guys don’t really realize they’re gonna die until they turn 50.”
During the past handful of years, Scarborough, typically “a very positive, upbeat person,” was in a depression. His father, a Republican with a dry sense of humor who, coincidentally, lost faith in his party during Watergate, had died. Soon after, Scarborough got divorced. “And boom. I was flattened for about three years.” Scarborough decided he had to live the rest of his life in a way he could be proud of, which meant making music and being with Brzezinski, however complicated that would be. “Something about turning 50,” he told me. “Oh my God, I’m not going to be here forever.” On his debut EP, he sings of “looking inside” and being by turns “mystified,” “terrified,” and “horrified” by the person he’s confronted with.I don’t write love songs. I was inspired to, finally.
He wrote Brzezinski a song, called “Let’s Fall in Love,” in which he sings of how “she breaks my heart with a wave of her hand,” something that leaves him “broken, but still I believe.” Fittingly, she almost didn’t hear it because they were “in the middle of a fight” and she didn’t want to go see him play it with his band. “I don’t write love songs,” he said. “I was inspired to, finally. And it was kind of neat once I got into it, because it was a different feel and it was a different motivation. It was even in a different style. It was sort of in a 3/4 style.” They made up, as they always do; in my presence, Brzezinski alternated between stage mom and groupie, warning me that he couldn’t talk too much before a Late Show performance because he might strain his voice and shrieking and clapping when he returned to the greenroom.
“I’ve been very nervous and stressed out and always worrying about everybody in this situation,” Brzezinski admitted at the house. “And at some point you have to live. And losing my dad was definitely clarifying in that way. And it also just … like, the stupid Trump tweets. Nothing matters after you go through something like that. Only the really real, personal, important, raw, dear-to-you things matter.”
Scarborough told me that Brzezinski’s father, who died in late May, “always had great advice about this, about our relationship and moving forward and everything else.” She hadn’t yet set foot in his office since his death, and she paused for a moment when she walked into the dark room. She emerged with photo albums. “Joe, you’re gonna love this,” she said, opening one. “Look at my dad with Strawberry in front of the house. And Peanut.” (Two horses.) “I had a rabbit named Bonny-Sadr during the Iran hostage situation,” she told me, and also a German shepherd, Napoleon, and geese, though that didn’t end so well. “My brother named them Lem and Lucius, and my brother was like really viciously mean to me at this time; he was going through a stage. And he was like, ‘Mika, guess where Lem and Lucius are? They’re hanging out out back.’ And I go and they were literally … they were beheaded.” Her mother — a sculptor who, at 85, still works on trees 50 times her size with a chainsaw — “was tired of the shit all over the yard.” Brzezinski sighed, removing her stilettos to tour her mother’s expansive studio, where an 11-foot-wide, 11-inch-tall rendering of a crucifix is mounted on the wall. Brzezinski was Snapchatting all the while. “A thousand Snapchats a day,” Scarborough told me. “For the daughters.”
Joe and Mika were engaged in the south of France in May, and she wears her large diamond solitaire, even though she said it gets in the way of caring for their petting zoo. “I’m not sure where we begin and the other ends. We’re just really connected,” she told me. Scarborough added, “You don’t know where I start, where she ends … We … she … understands me — ” She cut him off: “Makes you better.”
“She does make me a lot better.” Including paying particular attention to the height of his hair, which she has her own stylist cut at the Carlyle Hotel and is often fixing herself with her fingers.
“You know,” Scarborough said, “it’s actually funny that Mika, she loves — stop that,” he laughed, as her hand disappeared into the mane.
“I’m just trying to get it to be tall.”
“She loves — she will grab it.”
“I suggest you don’t talk too long about this,” Brzezinski cautioned him.
“She’ll yank it up high and spray it. And I’m like, ‘What are you doing? It’s going straight up!’ ” He laughed. “It just keeps hitting you that it’s forever. It’s forever. It’s forever. And you do realize immediately what matters, what doesn’t matter. It makes you treat people around you differently, people that you love.”
Hair and makeup by Wilbert Ramo. Bouquet from Élan Flowers.
*This article appears in the July 24, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.
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