Harvard law professor: If White House threatened 'Morning Joe' hosts with a National Enquirer story, it's a crime

If President Donald Trump or members of his administration told MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough that a National Enquirer hit piece would be published unless they provided the president with better coverage, that would be a crime, a Harvard law professor said.

Laurence Tribe, a liberal Harvard Law School professor who worked in President Barack Obama's administration, tweeted that if the White House told Brzezinski and Scarborough that the supermarket tabloid would "smear them unless they laid off" Trump, it would be a violation of the anti-extortion statute.

That statute, 18 US Code 872, states that "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."

The statute appears to leave open a window for interpretation. One could read it as only covering extortion that is directly tied to an amount of money, citing the line that reads "if the amount so extorted or demanded does not exceed $1,000." But the statute can also be read to cover any possible "act of extortion," with the National Enquirer incident falling under that umbrella.

"If Trump told staffers to extort, he too has committed that serious crime," Tribe, whom Trump once cited at a 2016 Republican primary debate to question whether Sen. Ted Cruz was eligible to run for president, subsequently tweeted.

12 PHOTOS
Celebrity reactions to Trump's attack on Mika
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Celebrity reactions to Trump's attack on Mika
Imagine having to defend this idiot. It's actually crazier than the idiot himself because they're actually aware of… https://t.co/EBNqi2S69e
I am so fucking tired of waking up to horrible news.
I see Melania's campaign to end cyber bullying is off to a slow start
America elected a very shitty person to be President
'Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.' Abraham Lincoln https://t.co/vkJnlXbnXg
Every time someone says the president is a child or a toddler all I can think of is I've never met a child who's this much of a dick.
Can we send the president to Outward Bound or do you have to be the parent of a troubled teen for that?
sarah - lying - sad https://t.co/Wl3ymOZusR
Like every woman you've married hasn't had a face lift. U should also get one. And a body lift. And yes, w/this duck, its ok to man shame.
What was said this morning about @morningmika & @JoeNBC by the President of the United States is disgusting, disgraceful & beyond the pale
Silver lining of Trump tweets: teachable moments for young boys. "Don't u ever act like that. Real men don't speak this way to women." #Mika
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Alan Dershowitz, the famed attorney and fellow Harvard law professor, disagreed with Tribe's assertion.

"Threatening to smear someone who smears him is not extortion," Dershowitz tweeted. "If it were prisons [would] be more overcrowded. Jefferson [would] have been imprisoned."

"Why are many libs willing to expand crim statutes/contract constitution in futile effort to 'get' Trump," he continued in a follow-up tweet. "Establishes dangerous/bad precedent."

Questions over the National Enquirer story — which was published earlier this month and accused "Morning Joe" co-hosts Brzezinski and Scarborough, who announced their engagement in May, of carrying on an affair while still married to other people and using "ironclad divorce deals to keep their dirty secret" — arose in the aftermath of Trump's vicious Thursday tweet attacking Brzezinski for "bleeding badly from a face-lift" during a trip to his Mar-a-Lago estate in December, a claim that photo evidence seemed to disprove.

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Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of 'Morning Joe' together
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Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of 'Morning Joe' together
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NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 14: Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough attend Silver Hill Hospital 2016 Giving Hope Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on November 14, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 25: Television hosts Joe Scarborough (L) and Mika Brzezinski attend 'The Americans' Season 5 Premiere at DGA Theater on February 25, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic)
LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 203 -- Pictured: (l-r) Hosts of Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski during an interview with host Seth Meyers on May 7, 2015 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 14: Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough host the Silver Hill Hospital 2016 Giving Hope Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on November 14, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 22: Ami Kaplan, Tina Brown, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, Cathie Black and guests attend the 5th Annual Elly Awards hosted by the Women's Forum of New York honoring Tina Brown & Emily Rafferty at The Plaza Hotel - 5th Avenue on June 22, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for the Elly Awards)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 02: Televsion hosts Mika Brzezinski (L) and Joe Scarborough attend the Accessories Council 20th Anniversary celebration of the ACE awards at Cipriani 42nd Street on August 2, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Accessories Council)
Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski arrive at the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) annual dinner in Washington, DC, on April 25, 2015. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 25: (L-R) George Stephanopoulos, Alexandra Wentworth, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski attend the Yahoo News/ABC News White House Correspondents' dinner reception pre-party at the Washington Hilton on Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Yahoo)
RED NOSE DAY -- Season: 2015 -- Pictured: (l-r) Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski -- (Photo by: Gavin Bond/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 25: Television journalists Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski attend the 101st Annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at the Washington Hilton on April 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 01: TV personalities Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC attend the 2014 National Magazine Awards at The New York Marriott Marquis on May 1, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Bennett Raglin/WireImage)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Al Roker, Willie Geist, Dwain Schenk, Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 02: TV personalities Joe Scarborough (L) and Mika Brzezinski attend the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Graydon Carter on March 2, 2014 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12: Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski attend the 'The Right Path: From Ike To Reagan, How Republicans Once Mastered Politics - And Can Again' book event on November 12, 2013 in New York, United States. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 13: Mika Brzezinski (R) and Joe Scarborough, host of Morning Joe on MSNBC promote her new book 'Obsessed: The Fight Against America's (and My Own) Food Addiction' at Barnes and Noble Union Square on May 13, 2013 in New York, United States. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 22: Host, MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' Joe Scarborough and Co-host, MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' Mika Brzezinski attend the New York Women In Communications 2013 Matrix Awards on April 22, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for New York Women In Communications)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 29: Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, co-hosts of Morning Joe, hang out on floor of the Republican National Convention in the Tampa Bay Times Forum on the day Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., republican vice-presidential nominee, will address the crowd. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
NBC NEWS - EVENTS -- NBCUniversal News Group Upfront -- Pictured: (l-r) Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski -- (Photo by: Francine Daveta/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: (L-R) Roger Ailes, President of Fox News Channel, Elizabeth Tilson Ailes, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski attend the Hollywood Reporter celebration of 'The 35 Most Powerful People in Media' at the Four Season Grill Room on April 11, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 08: Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski arrive for 'The Late Show with David Letterman' at Ed Sullivan Theater on May 8, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Donna Ward/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: 'Morning Joe' co-hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough attend the Hollywood Reporter celebrates 'The 35 Most Powerful People in Media' at the Four Season Grill Room on April 11, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 22: Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough attend the Ralph Lauren celebration for the publication of 'The Hamptons: Food, Family and History' by Ricky Lauren at the Ralph Lauren Women's Boutique on May 22, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Mark Von Holden/Getty Images for Ralph Lauren)
Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski , co-hosts of Morning Joe television program, at the White House Forum on Women and the Economy in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)
PALM BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 17: Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough attend the 7th Annual Everglades Foundation Gala at The Breakers on February 17, 2012 in Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Lucien Capehart/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 07: (L-R) Host Joe Scarborough, co-hosts Mika Brzezinski, and Willie Geist speak onstage during the 'Morning Joe' panel during the NBCUniversal portion of the 2012 Winter TCA Tour at The Langham Huntington Hotel and Spa on January 7, 2012 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 03: MSNBC's Morning Joe co-hosts Mika Brzezinski (L) and Joe Scarborough (R) attend 2011 WICT Leadership Conference and Touchstones Luncheon at New York Hilton and Towers on October 3, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Imagesfor WICT)
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NEW YORK, NY - MAY 19: Andrew Oshrin, Michele Smith, Mika Brzezinski, and Joe Scarborough attend the opening of the Milly Madison Avenue boutique on May 19, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Thomas Concordia/Getty Images)
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MORNING JOE -- Pictured: (l-r) Mika Brzezinski, Joe Scarborough -- MORNING JOE co-hosts broadcast live from EDUCATION NATION (Photo by Charles Sykes/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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The pair wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post on Friday that "this year, top White House staff members warned that the National Enquirer was planning to publish a negative article about us unless we begged the president to have the story spiked."

"We ignored their desperate pleas," they wrote.

Trump responded to the allegation in a tweet Friday morning, appearing to confirm that such conversations took place.

"Watched low rated @Morning_Joe for first time in long time," Trump tweeted. "FAKE NEWS. He called me to stop a National Enquirer article. I said no! Bad show."

Following Trump's tweet, both The Daily Beast and New York magazine published reports that detailed the context of the conversations between the White House and the hosts of "Morning Joe" regarding the National Enquirer story.

White House officials told The Daily Beast that Scarborough had spoken with senior adviser and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, whom he is known to be close with, "many weeks ago" regarding the upcoming Enquirer story.

The officials said Scarborough "calmly sought" Kushner's advice, who "recommended he speak with the president."

But those sources said there was no hostile threat or blackmail attempt in those conversations.

A much different account was made public by New York magazine.

In this account, which was sourced to "three sources familiar with the private conversations," the following happened:

"After the inauguration, Morning Joe's coverage of Trump turned sharply negative. 'This presidency is fake and failed,' Brzezinski said on March 6, for example. Around this time, Scarborough and Brzezinski found out the Enquirer was preparing a story about their affair. While Scarborough and Brzezinski's relationship had been gossiped about in media circles for some time, it was not yet public, and the tabloid was going to report that they had left their spouses to be together.

"In mid-April, Scarborough texted with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner about the pending Enquirer story. Kushner told Scarborough that he would need to personally apologize to Trump in exchange for getting Enquirer owner David Pecker to stop the story. (A spokesperson for Kushner declined to comment). Scarborough says he refused, and the Enquirer published the story in print on June 5, headlined 'Morning Joe Sleazy Cheating Scandal!'"

Trump is close with Pecker, who in turn has run a number of pro-Trump pieces in his publication, in addition to salacious, unfounded stories involving Cruz and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

As New York magazine noted, Trump tweeted last August that "Some day, when things calm down, I'll tell the real story of@JoeNBC and his very insecure long-time girlfriend, @morningmika. Two clowns!"

In a Friday statement, the National Enquirer denied any knowledge of or involvement in any discussions between the "Morning Joe" hosts and the White House.

But following Trump's Friday tweet, many were quick to note his not-so-subtle admission that he had the power to thwart a National Enquirer story.

"Woops, you just admitted you can kill National Enquirer stories if you want," Judd Legum, editor of the liberal website ThinkProgress, tweeted.

Trump "had power over Nat'l Enquirer coverage of Joe & Mika's private life," MSNBC analyst Jonathan Alter tweeted. "Did he also orchestrated [sic] hits on Cruz, Carson, HRC?"

Scarborough shot back at Trump's tweet, but his answer led to additional questions.

"Yet another lie," he tweeted in response. "I have texts from your top aides and phone records. Also, those records show I haven't spoken with you in many months."

But MSNBC told Politico that it would not immediately release those conversations, which caused some to question why the "Morning Joe" hosts and their network would hold back.

"If NBC talent were being blackmailed, threatened by the WH, why would they sit on this for so long?" tweeted John Weaver, chief strategist for Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich's 2016 presidential campaign. "Or at all?"

Tribe, who is confident that the White House violated the law with the Enquirer story, tweeted that he'd be pleased if this too became an element of special counsel Robert Mueller's overarching investigation into Russian election meddling.

"It would be poetic justice for Trump if Special Counsel Mueller were to interview @JoeNBC & @morningmika as part of his investigation of WH" he wrote.

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