President Donald Trump apparently admitted to taking part in a scheme to intimidate MSNBC's Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski by confirming some elements of the "Morning Joe" host's allegations.
The co-hosts, who recently announced their engagement after taking pains to hide their relationship, revealed Friday morning in a Washington Post column that top White House staffers urged them to grovel before the president or else a tabloid owned by a Trump ally would publish a negative story about them.
Scarborough and Brzezinski, who've known Trump for years, claimed reporters called their friends and family -- including their children -- and staked out their homes as the calls came from three White House officials repeatedly pleading with them to apologize to Trump for negative coverage.
The "Morning Joe" hosts said they refused, but Trump claimed that Scarborough had actually called him to stop the National Enquirer article -- although the MSNBC host claims he's got evidence to prove the president is lying.
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— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)1498827308.0
Trump, at the very least, seems to have acknowledged that he's able to kill stories before they appear in the supermarket tabloid, which has "embraced the president with such sycophantic zeal," as the New Yorker put it.
But did he admit to a crime?
Blackmail and extortion statutes all hinge on the definition of a "thing of value" -- which, in this case, would be an apology by Scarborough and Brzezinski for their critical coverage of the president.
Under the U.S. code for interstate communications, which could apply if top administration officials called Scarborough in New York from the White House, a person can be charged if they intend to extort a thing of value by threatening to injure the property or reputation of another.
An impeachment trial would hinge on proving the TV hosts' apology was valuable enough to Trump that he was willing to threaten their reputation to obtain it.
The value of money or property are easy enough to substantiate, but an apology or some other ego-stroking gesture could potentially meet that standard -- especially if narcissistic personality disorder or some other mental disorder could be shown, according to one federal prosecutor.
If Scarborough's claims are true, those three senior White House officials -- which reportedly includes Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner -- could potentially face conspiracy charges to deprive the "Morning Joe" hosts of their First Amendment rights.
That statute would require prosecutors to prove those White House officials conspired to threaten or intimidate Scarborough or Brzezinski to prevent them from speaking out against the president.
Scarborough's account of those conversations suggests those officials begged him to make the call to keep the president from pestering them about the issue, and the "Morning Joe" host claims he's got text messages and phone records to prove his allegations.
The officials could also potentially face abuse of office charges, which prohibits government officials from denying or impeding others from enjoyment of their constitutional rights.
The co-hosts could pursue a civil suit, where a different standard of proof applies, and allege the president and his top administration officials intentionally inflicted emotional distress in retaliation for their critical coverage.
However, presidents are immune from civil suits in federal court -- although not in state courts.