NEW YORK (AP) — Joe Scarborough's year-end meet-up with Donald Trump has unleashed criticism of the MSNBC commentator for being too cozy with a high elected figure. But Scarborough says he's just doing his job as a journalist, and suggests he was targeted only because the politician was Trump.
Eyebrows were raised Sunday by a New York Times report including Scarborough and his "Morning Joe" co-host, Mika Brzezinski, among those on hand for Trump's lavish New Year's Eve party at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.
But on Tuesday's "Morning Joe" edition, Scarborough denied he and Brzezinski were there to party. Instead, he said, they were summoned for a private meeting with Trump to discuss a possible future interview.
After being admitted to the compound at about 7:15 p.m. Saturday, he and Brzezinski skirted the festivities. "We walked upstairs and hid, because we were underdressed." The two spoke with Trump for about 20 minutes, and were gone by 7:50, he said.
"People say, 'Why do you meet on New York's Eve?'" Scarborough said, swiftly offering the answer: "You go to meet the president-elect when the staff SAYS you come meet the president-elect."
Scarborough said he had been staying with friends in the area when called to the meeting. An NBC publicist declined to explain how Brzezinski happened to be available. She was not on Tuesday's "Morning Joe."
Over the weekend, Scarborough took heat on Twitter.
"This sure looks like an ideal location to have a journalistic meeting about an interview on NYE," tweeted Sopan Deb, a CBS News correspondent who will soon move to The New York Times, referencing a photo that shows Scarborough standing with Trump near revelers.
Another tweet, from "Meet the Press" moderator (and fellow NBC employee) Chuck Todd said, "It really stinks to watch others continue help ruin the reputation of your industry. But fighting each other about only hurts the democracy."
Aly Colon, Knight Chair in Media Ethics at Washington and Lee University, sizes up this backlash.
"It benefits journalists to maintain as much distance as they can from the personal world these people inhabit," he says, if only to avoid a misperception. "Often, perception can trump reality."
Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, has enjoyed perhaps a warmer on-air relationship with Trump than many of his TV counterparts, often receiving Trump's phone calls during the show.
But on one occasion in December 2015, things got contentious when, 10 minutes into the interview, he essentially threw Trump off the air for talking over interviewers.
"Donald, Donald, Donald, Donald, Donald," he said. "You're not going to keep talking. We will cut to a break if you keep talking." And he did. After the commercial, Trump stayed on the air for nearly 30 more minutes.
Last August, things struck another sour note when Trump tweeted that "Morning Joe" is "unwatchable!" He said Brzezinski was "off the wall, a neurotic and not very bright mess!" and slammed both co-hosts as "two clowns."
On Tuesday's show, Scarborough said, "Mika and I have known and have been friends with Donald Trump for a decade," though conceding that "things got obviously very rough during the campaign."
He said that, though criticized for being too close with Trump, he and Brzezinski actually spent more time with President Barack Obama "in the Oval Office one-on-one than we ever did with Donald Trump — 90 minutes, talking politics, all off-the-record."
He noted that journalists routinely meet and socialize with the government bigwigs they cover, and have done so going back decades.
Frank Sesno agrees.
"Anybody who suggests that prominent journalists and talk-show hosts haven't, for a long time, gone out of their way to meet candidates in social environments so they can make nice and get them on their shows — anyone who doesn't think that's a fixture is operating in another universe," says Sesno, Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
During President Barack Obama's eight years in office, for example, journalists — including Associated Press reporters and editors — attended state dinners and other social gatherings at the White House as guests.
"Different people play the game in different ways and Scarborough, as he's made plain himself, is a talk-show host," Sesno said. "He's not a straight journalist. That's a big difference and it needs to be acknowledged."
AP reporter Patrick Mairs in Philadelphia contributed to this report.