The conduct was certainly tawdry. But it may be much more than that.
On Friday morning MSNBC host Joe Scarborough revealed that senior White House officials said the National Enquirer would publish a damaging story about him and co-host Mika Brzezinski unless he called President Trump and apologized for his critical coverage. Scarborough says he refused to comply.
The threats, according to several legal experts, could violate federal and state laws.
The White House threats, which Scarborough said were communicated via text messages he has saved, were presumably sent from Washington, D.C. to New York City, where Scarborough lives and works.
If so, New York, D.C., and federal law could be implicated.
New York Penal Law § 135.60 (Coercion)
Under New York law:
A person is guilty of coercion in the second degree when he or she compels or induces a person to engage in conduct which the latter has a legal right to abstain from engaging in, or to abstain from engaging in conduct in which he or she has a legal right to engage, or compels or induces a person to join a group, organization or criminal enterprise which such latter person has a right to abstain from joining, by means of instilling in him or her a fear that, if the demand is not complied with, the actor or another will:
5. Expose a secret or publicize an asserted fact, whether true or false, tending to subject some person to hatred, contempt or ridicule
Here, White House officials allegedly tried to compel Scarborough to call Trump and apologize, something that Scarborough has “a legal right to abstain from engaging in.” If Scarborough didn’t meet the demand, the officials threatened to expose embarrassing information about his relationship with Brzezinski through an article in the National Enquirer.
Former White House counsel Norm Eisen said he believes White House aides violated that statute. Trump, if he was involved in the scheme, could also be implicated.
D.C. Criminal Law § 22–3252 (Blackmail)
D.C. law is similar to New York law. Under the D.C. code:
(a) A person commits the offense of blackmail, if, with intent to obtain property of another or to cause another to do or refrain from doing any act, that person threatens:
(2) To expose a secret or publicize an asserted fact, whether true or false, tending to subject any person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule; or
(3) To impair the reputation of any person, including a deceased person.
Here, White House officials allegedly intended to cause Scarborough to apologize to President Trump by threatening to expose his relationship with Brzezinski through a damaging National Enquirer article.
A lawyer familiar with D.C. law, who asked for anonymity due to the political nature of the topic, says White House aides (and potentially Trump) may have violated this provision. It is, the lawyer noted, seldom prosecuted in D.C.
U.S. Code § 872 (Extortion by officers or employees of the United States)
Under federal law:
Whoever, being an officer, or employee of the United States or any department or agency thereof, or representing himself to be or assuming to act as such, under color or pretense of office or employment commits or attempts an act of extortion, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both; but if the amount so extorted or demanded does not exceed $1,000, he shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.
Here, White House aides allegedly used extortion to try induce Scarborough to apologize to Trump.
Harvard law professor Larry Tribe says he believes the aides’ conduct (and Trump, if he was directly involved) violates this federal statute. Although extortion under federal law is limited to “the obtaining of property,” Tribe believes “that includes Joe & Mika’s commercially valuable reputation.” Still, the focus on property would make a federal case the most difficult to prove.
Ultimately, of course, whether there was any legal violation depends on the facts. White House sources are claiming that Scarborough’s story is inaccurate and he reached out to the White House for help with the National Enquirer story. Scarborough says that Trump and the White House are lying and he has texts to prove it.
Thus far, Scarborough has not released the texts or the names of the White House officials he spoke to.
White House threats to Joe Scarborough may have violated three criminal laws was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.