NEW YORK -- A skirmish involving President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Washington Post and MSNBC has escalated into unusual personal bitterness this week, with election security legislation and Trump's attacks on U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings as the triggers.

On Tuesday, Trump went after MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Twitter. Responding to a reporter's question about a Post column that labeled McConnell a Russian asset, Trump said the newspaper's leaders "ought to be ashamed of themselves and they ought to apologize."

The Post's Dana Milbank wrote an opinion column published Friday that criticized McConnell for blocking legislation aimed at protecting the nation's political system against foreign attack. Noting Russia's cyber intrusion on the 2016 presidential election and indications that it would try again next year, Milbank's column was headlined, "Mitch McConnell is a Russian asset."

Milbank wrote that he could only conclude that the Republican leader from Kentucky, who is up for re-election next year, believes Russian influence would benefit him and his party.

"A leader who won't protect our country from attack is no patriot," he wrote.

"Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough picked up on the subject, labeling McConnell "Moscow Mitch."

McConnell denounced the attacks on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Monday, calling it "modern-day McCarthyism" from people who "have worn out the volume knob so badly that they have nothing left but the most unhinged smears."

He said the legislation he blocked was partisan in nature.

"It doesn't make Republicans traitors or un-American," he said. "It makes us policymakers with a different opinion."

Fred Hiatt, the Post's editorial page editor, said Milbank's column was legitimate commentary.

"Of course it's equally legitimate for Mr. McConnell to express a contrary view, but the Milbank argument has nothing to do with McCarthyism," Hiatt said.

Trump defended McConnell while speaking to reporters outside the White House. The Post said it had no comment on what the president said on Tuesday.

The dispute with "Morning Joe" may have been instigated by the show's defense of Maryland Democratic congressman Cummings, who was attacked by Trump over the weekend for not doing more to help a Baltimore he said was infested with crime.

Both sides know certain personal buttons to push, too.

Scarborough delivered a 10-minute essay Monday on behalf of his "personal friend" Cummings, saying the congressman had more courage and cared more about his constituents than Trump ever will. Scarborough was absent from Tuesday's show, but his co-host and wife, Mika Brzezinski, picked up on the theme.

Trump tweeted that the "Morning Joe" ratings have crashed because "people are tired of hearing Fake News delivered with an anger that is not to be believed."

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