President Donald Trump has taken time out in recent days from hyping false allegations about vague crimes purportedly committed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, to hype false allegations about a very specific crime purportedly committed by one of his critics in the media, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough.
In a series of vile, unhinged Twitter rants, Trump has repeatedly promoted the conspiracy theory that Scarborough murdered Lori Kaye Klausutis, his former staffer, calling for new investigations by law enforcement and by online “forensic geniuses.” “Psycho Joe Scarborough is rattled, not only by his bad ratings but all of the things and facts that are coming out on the internet about opening a Cold Case,” the president wrote this morning. “He knows what is happening!”
Klausutis was found dead in Scarborough’s Florida congressional office in 2001. A medical examiner determined that she had fainted due to a heart condition and struck her head on a desk. Police found no signs of foul play, and Scarborough himself was 800 miles away in Washington, D.C., at the time. But conspiracy theories nevertheless swirled around her death, and two decades later, the president has weaponized them as the latest salvo in a yearslong feud with Scarborough. Klausutis’ family has been collateral damage, with Trump’s fixation on her death and his encouragement of internet sleuths subjecting them to unimaginable grief and waves of harassment.
Trump is both the nation’s most prominent conspiracy theorist and a notorious liar. It can be difficult to determine whether he actually believes what he says when he accuses his political enemies of crimes. But in this case, it hardly matters.
Scarborough didn't kill Klausutis, and in spite of Trump's attempts to insinuate the contrary, the president doesn't actually care whether Scarborough is a murderer. We know this because back during the 2016 campaign, when Trump was a regular guest on Morning Joe and receiving largely soft coverage from its host, this never came up. (Trump now claims that he “would always be thinking” about Klausutis’ death during those interviews.)
He is talking about this conspiracy theory because Scarborough has become a vocal critic of his presidency. The president is addicted to cable news and is notoriously thin-skinned about criticism. He is enraged because when he turns on Scarborough’s Morning Joe, he keeps seeing himself being maligned. The message he is sending to Scarborough with every tweet and public comment about this topic is, “If you want me to stop, shut up.”
We know Trump doesn’t really care because the penalty he’s seeking for Scarborough supposedly killing someone is NBC canceling his TV show. In November 2017, he wrote, “Will they terminate low ratings Joe Scarborough based on the ‘unsolved mystery’ that took place in Florida years ago? Investigate!” When Trump returned to the subject this month, he urged NBC’s parent company -- not law enforcement -- to “open up a long overdue Florida Cold Case,” adding that the host also has what he views as the greatest sin of all: “bad ratings!”
We know Trump doesn’t really care because White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany effectively justified his comments by arguing that Scarborough had been critical of the president.
And we know Trump doesn’t really care because he has a long history of associating with and praising people who have been accused of or committed crimes -- as long as those people say nice things about him.
Look no further than Fox & Friends, Morning Joe’s competitor in the time slot. You don’t see Trump tweeting about co-host Steve Doocy and the lawsuit former co-host Gretchen Carlson filed describing gender-based harassment by him. When Pete Hegseth, an Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran, stated on air that he had done things during his service that could be construed as war crimes, Trump didn’t tell online Sherlocks to investigate. That’s because Fox & Friends presents a relentlessly upbeat take on the Trump presidency, and so Trump has showered its hosts with praise and rewarded them with interviews.
Trump’s affinity for murderous authoritarians is one of the throughlines of his foreign policy. He’s not interested in opening a cold case investigation into the role Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman played in the dismemberment of dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. He has no qualms about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un ordering his half-brother’s assassination or Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Muslim concentration camps, or Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of summary execution for suspected drug dealers. They are nice to Trump, and Trump is nice to them.
Perhaps the clearest example of Trump’s selective interest in murder involved Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his father, Rafael. In early May 2016, when Trump and Cruz were battling for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump briefly became extremely interested in whether the elder Cruz had played a role in the assassination of President John Kennedy. He seized on a National Enquirer story which falsely claimed that Rafael Cruz was pictured in a photo with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before Oswald killed Kennedy. But Ted Cruz would eventually become a loyal Trumpist, and mirabile dictu, now you don’t hear much from Trump about his father’s role in a presidential assassination.
That’s the pathway Trump is leaving open for Scarborough: If he wants the president of the United States to stop accusing him of murder, he should stop criticizing Trump and learn to love him. If that makes the president sound like a mob boss, well, that’s our unfortunate reality.