WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two television hosts attacked by U.S. President Donald Trump questioned the Republican leader's mental health on Friday and accused him of trying to exert pressure on them over unfavourable coverage, calling it blackmail.
Trump drew a barrage of criticism on Thursday, including from his fellow Republicans, after he called Mika Brzezinski, a co-host of the MSNBC "Morning Joe" programme, "low I.Q. Crazy Mika" and said she was "bleeding badly from a face-lift" when she visited his Mar-A-Lago estate around New Year's Eve.
He referred to her co-host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican U.S. congressman, as "Psycho Joe."
The two television anchors, who were on friendly terms with Trump early in the 2016 presidential campaign but have been critical of him since he took office, responded with a column in The Washington Post on Friday.
"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.
Scarborough added on the "Morning Joe" show on Friday that he received calls from three top administration officials asking the co-hosts to call Trump and apologise for their coverage of his administration. They told him that if he called and apologised, Trump would get the story killed, Scarborough said.
"The calls kept coming, and kept coming. And they were like 'Call, you need to call. Please call. Come on, Joe. Just pick up the phone and call him,'" Scarborough said. "It’s blackmail."
In a Twitter message on Friday, Trump effectively denied the allegation, giving a different version of what transpired around the National Enquirer piece.
"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," he wrote.
There was no immediate comment from the National Enquirer. The tabloid specializes in scandalous stories about celebrities and has been supportive of Trump.
In the Post column, Brzezinski and Scarborough lambasted Trump as mentally unstable, saying he had an "unhealthy obsession" with their television programme, and cited what they called his continued mistreatment of women.
On the "Morning Joe" show, Brzezinski, a daughter of former White House national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, said her main concern was how such behaviour affects the country.
"I am very concerned as to what this once again reveals about the president of the United States," said Brzezinski, who is engaged to be married to Scarborough.
Trump uses Twitter prolifically and often as a vehicle to attack critics, including the "Morning Joe" hosts, but Thursday's tweets were seen by many as offensive.
Brzezinski and Scarborough dismissed as lies Trump's claims, made in the Thursday Twitter messages, that he refused to have dinner with them or that Brzezinski had had a face lift.
They also said they had seen a change in the president over the last few years.
"President Trump launched personal attacks against us Thursday, but our concerns about his unmoored behaviour go far beyond the personal. America’s leaders and allies are asking themselves yet again whether this man is fit to be president," they wrote in the Post column.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry