NEW YORK (AP) — MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, who lately has become a symbol of the media's complicated relationship with Donald Trump, said Monday that the Republican's remarks on David Duke are "disqualifying" and compel an apology.
The "Morning Joe" host, a former GOP congressman from Florida, referred to Trump's Sunday interview on CNN about former Ku Klux Klan leader Duke's support of Trump's presidential candidacy. Trump at first pleaded ignorance about Duke and groups he's been involved in, then later said he disavowed Duke's support.
"That's disqualifying right there," Scarborough said of the CNN interview. "It's breathtaking ... Is he really so stupid that he thinks Southerners aren't offended by the KKK?"
Scarborough also penned a Washington Post column posted on Monday saying Trump's "feigned ignorance" about Duke and the KKK raise disturbing questions about the Republican presidential front-runner.
A Trump spokeswoman noted that the candidate had disavowed Duke's endorsement before and after Sunday's interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, but had no comment on Scarborough's remarks. Trump, on NBC's "Today" show on Monday, blamed a "very bad earpiece" provided by CNN for having trouble understanding precisely what Tapper had asked him.
Scarborough's comments come after he and his show have faced criticism for being too friendly with Trump. The business mogul's rise in the political polls has been accompanied by record ratings for events surrounding the GOP nomination campaign, giving networks the incentive to talk about the race as much as possible — particularly with the candidate himself.
Trump has been interviewed on "Morning Joe" 32 times since the Republican announced his candidacy last summer, according to the liberal media watchdogs Media Matters for America. Many have been telephone interviews. Most television shows avoid phone interviews — they need pictures — but the interest in Trump and the ratings his appearances bring has led to that rule being bent by many.
In the months before primary or caucus voting began, Scarborough frequently disagreed with analysts who believed Trump's initial strong showing in polls would evaporate. That was undoubtedly helpful to the Trump campaign, yet also proved to be astute analysis for a daily program that traffics in three hours of political talk.
It was some offhand comments that embarrassed "Morning Joe."
The morning after Trump's win in the New Hampshire primary, Trump said in an interview with Scarborough and co-host Mika Brzezinski that "you guys have been supporters and I really appreciate it." He quickly clarified himself: "not necessarily supporters but at least believers. You said there's some potential there."
Tapes leaked by radio host Harry Shearer, of conversations involving Scarborough, Brzezinski and Trump during commercial breaks in Trump's Feb. 17 town hall meeting on MSNBC, revealed the type of banter between media figures and a candidate usually not seen when cameras are rolling.
In the off-air moments, both MSNBC hosts told Trump that they had been wrong in thinking Trump had performed poorly in a recent debate. When Brzezinski discussed with a network producer a potential subject for questions, Trump is heard saying, "nothing too hard, Mika."
The hosts also thanked Trump for providing the network with an hour of prime-time programming, and Trump joked, "I'm doing this because you get great ratings and a raise. Me, I get nothing."
Frank Sesno, media and public affairs professor at George Washington University and a former CNN Washington bureau chief, said Scarborough "like so many on cable television and on talk radio, has been captivated by the Trump phenomenon. I would not say he's been working for him."
But the media figures must always remember that "part of their responsibility, part of the public trust, is also to bring scrutiny to the story and hold people accountable when they are running for president of the United States."
Scarborough has fought back against any characterizations that he's been too friendly to Trump, and noted in the Washington Post that he hung up on the candidate after a December on-air discussion about Trump wanting to block Muslims from entering the country grew too heated.
He said on "Morning Joe" that if Trump doesn't apologize for how he handled questioning on Duke, "he'll win in the short run, but he'll get destroyed in the fall."