WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two television hosts assailed by Donald Trump questioned his mental health on Friday and charged that the White House had tried unsuccessfully to get them to apologise to the president for unfavourable coverage in exchange for his getting a negative tabloid story about them killed.
"He appears to have a fragile, impetuous, child-like ego that we've seen over and over again, especially with women," Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," said on the programme.
"He attacks women because he fears women," added co-host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican U.S. congressman.
Brzezinski and Scarborough fired back on their programme and in an opinion piece in The Washington Post after Trump's Twitter messages on Thursday, which attacked them, particularly Brzezinski, in highly personal terms.
Trump called Brzezinski "low I.Q. Crazy Mika" and alleged that she was "bleeding badly from a face-lift" when she visited his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida around New Year's Eve. He called Scarborough "Psycho Joe."
Scarborough said Trump packed "five or six lies into two tweets," including mischaracterising their meetings at Mar-a-Lago. Brzezinski said she has never had a face-lift.
Presidential counsellor Kellyanne Conway, speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America," defended Trump's "ability to fight back when he is attacked." She declined to endorse the content of his tweets.
"Well it's incredible to watch people play armchair psychologist, outright ridiculing the president's physicalities, his mental state, calling him names that you won't want your children to call people on a playground," Conway told Fox News.
Trump's tweets, his latest attacks on the U.S. news media, were roundly condemned by lawmakers in both parties and became a distraction as his fellow Republicans in the Senate try to iron out their differences over major healthcare legislation.
Brzezinski and Scarborough, who were on friendly terms with Trump in the past but have been critical of him since he took office in January, described White House pressure over a planned negative story about them in the National Enquirer tabloid newspaper.
Trump was friends with David Pecker, chief executive of the National Enquirer's parent company, American Media, Inc. The tabloid specializes in scandalous stories about celebrities and has been supportive of Trump.
"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 in the Post.
Scarborough said on the programme 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. He did not identify the administration officials.
"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. "That's blackmail," said MSNBC panelist Donny Deutsch.
In a Twitter post on Friday, Trump gave a different account, saying Scarborough "called me to stop a National Enquirer article. I said no!"
American Media said in a statement "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."
"I am very concerned as to what this once again reveals about the president of the United States," Brzezinski, who is engaged to be married to Scarborough, said of Trump's Twitter attacks.
"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," the co-hosts wrote in the Post column.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry