The most important legislative priority of President Trump's administration so far is hanging by a thread in the Senate. The president of South Korea arrived in Washington on Thursday for talks as North Korea's nuclear threat increases. White House officials had wanted to focus public discussion this week on energy policy.
But Trump found time over the last two days to conduct a Twitter war with two cable TV news hosts who claim that his White House tried to threaten them with an unflattering story in a supermarket tabloid.
"Donald Trump is not well," declared the headline of a Washington Post op-ed column by MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brezizinski, which they used as talking points during a lengthy segment on their show, "Morning Joe."
In the column and on the program they said the White House used the threat of a National Enquirer story about their romantic relationship as leverage in an unsuccessful effort to extract an apology for on-air criticism of the president.
Trump fired back Friday on Twitter, insisting that it was Scarborough who had sought him out in an effort to have the Enquirer story spiked.
"Watched low rated @Morning_Joe for first time in long time. FAKE NEWS. He called me to stop a National Enquirer article. I said no! Bad show," read the tweet. It was Trump's third about the pair over the course of two days.
The clash with the MSNBC hosts is the latest flare up in the fraught relationship between Trump and the news media that cover him. Earlier this week, the White House portrayed CNN as a source of "fake news" after the network retracted a story about an alleged tie between people close to Trump and Russia. Three CNN journalists resigned after the online story was withdrawn.
The fight between the president and the TV hosts seemed to take on a special venom, perhaps because the three have a long, personal relationship. Trump appeared many times on "Morning Joe" during his campaign, and he and the show's two hosts sometimes socialized together.
Trump's refusal to let the quarrel drop came despite widespread pleas by Republican members of Congress and even some of his staunchest backers in conservative media, who saw the Twitter battle as beneath the dignity of the White House and a distraction from White House efforts to push an agenda forward.
The fight began with messages on Twitter on Thursday, in which Trump called Brzezinski "low I.Q. Crazy Mika" and Scarborough "Psycho Joe."
Trump claimed that he had at one point seen Brzezinski "bleeding badly from a face-lift" and alleged that the pair had invited themselves to Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach, Fla., over the New Year's holiday and that he had refused to see them.
Scarborough and Brzezinski were scheduled to be on vacation Friday, but appeared on the air to address the president's behavior at the top of the second hour of their program. They denied the allegations and condemned Trump's behavior.
"He appears to have a fragile, impetuous, childlike ego that we have seen over and over again — especially with women. He can't take it," Brzezinski said on the program.
The president is "unmoored" and has "a disturbing obsession with Mika," they wrote in the op-ed column.
They also denied the claim that they had invited themselves to Mar-a-Lago. "That is laughable," they wrote in the op-ed. Trump had invited them to dinner on Dec. 30, and Scarborough attended because Brzezinski did not want to go, they wrote.
"After listening to the president-elect talk about his foreign policy plans, Joe was asked by a disappointed Mr. Trump the next day if Mika could also visit Mar-a-Lago that night," they wrote.
"She reluctantly agreed to go. After we arrived, the president-elect pulled us into his family's living quarters with his wife, Melania," they wrote. After "a pleasant conversation," the pair "were back in our car within 15 minutes," they said.
The claim that Brzezinski was "bleeding badly from a face-lift is also a lie," they wrote.
"Putting aside Mr. Trump's never-ending obsession with women's blood, Mika and her face were perfectly intact, as pictures from that night reveal," they wrote.
"And though it is no one's business, the president's petulant personal attack against yet another woman's looks compels us to report that Mika has never had a face-lift. If she had, it would be evident to anyone watching 'Morning Joe' on their high-definition TV."
On the show, Scarborough said Trump "attacks women because he fears women." He described a conversation with a member of Congress who recounted how Trump, in a meeting with 20 members of Congress, once described Brzezinski as having blood coming out of her eyes and ears — a remark similar to what Trump said about Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News anchor, following the August 2015 Republican primary debate.
Scarborough also described several calls from the White House in which he was told the National Enquirer was preparing an unflattering story about his relationship with Brzezinski. Scarborough and Brzezinski, who are both divorced, have been romantically linked for years but only went public with their relationship in May after they got engaged.
Scarborough said he was told that if they called Trump and "apologize for your coverage, he will pick up the phone and basically spike the story."
David Pecker, the chief executive of American Media — the company that owns the National Enquirer — is a friend of the president's.
Brzezinski said she was upset because the Enquirer was calling her teenage children and were "pinning the story on my ex-husband."
When Scarborough had a conversation about the story with the White House, Brzezinski said her co-host was told, "This can go away."
An MSNBC representative said that Scarborough and Brzezinski made executives at the network aware of the situation with the White House and the Enquirer in April when the conversations over the article began.
The Enquirer defended its story and said it had no knowledge of involvement by the White House.
"At the beginning of June, we accurately reported a story that recounted the relationship between Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, the truth of which is not in dispute," American Media chief content officer and vice president Dylan Howard said in a statement.
"At no time did we threaten either Joe or Mika or their children in connection with our reporting on the story. We have no knowledge of any discussions between the White House and Joe and Mika about our story, and absolutely no involvement in those discussions."
Scarborough said on Twitter that he had evidence to back his claim.
"I have texts from your top aides and phone records. Also, those records show I haven't spoken with you in many months," he wrote in a tweet directed to Trump.
MSNBC declined to release the text messages. At Scarborough's request, the network also did not confirm which White House aides discussed the Enquirer story with him.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders brushed aside a question about the controversy during a short, off-camera briefing with reporters. On Thursday, she defended Trump's tweets, claiming that the president was fighting back against a steady barrage of on-air insults from Brzezinski and Scarborough.
In an April 13 interview with The Times, Brzezinski and Scarborough noted that their once-cordial relationship with Trump had deteriorated since the inauguration as they have expressed dismay at what they think has been a chaotic, undisciplined presidency.
Brzezinski said at the time that Trump is less tolerant of criticism coming from a woman.
"He just won't even engage," she said. "Joe will punch him in the face, and he'll come back for more."
12:35 p.m.: This article was updated to include a statement from MSNBC, a comment by White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and additional details.
7:50 a.m.: This article was updated to include a statement from American Media chief content officer and Vice President Dylan Howard.
10:53 a.m.: This article was updated with a tweet from Scarborough.