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[WASHINGTON] Donald Trump unleashed a brutal personal attack Thursday on respected female television host Mika Brzezinski, sparking an instant backlash, in the latest stunning salvo in the president's ongoing war with the media.
Mr Trump's Twitter outburst - in which he describes the journalist "bleeding badly from a facelift" - appears to have been triggered by Ms Brzezinski's sharp comments during the morning show she co-hosts with Joe Scarborough on the left-leaning MSNBC network.
"I heard poorly rated @Morning-Joe speaks badly of me (don't watch anymore)," wrote Mr Trump, an avid cable news watcher.
"Then how come low IQ Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year's Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!" he tweeted.
In recent days Mr Trump has escalated his attacks on US media outlets - which he accuses of peddling "fake news" about him - singling out CNN over the retraction of a story about his administration's supposed links with Russia, but also assailing rival cable networks, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
But the vulgarity of his latest assault triggered a torrent of criticism including within his own party.
"Inappropriate. Undignified. Unpresidential," tweeted Jeb Bush, Mr Trump's rival for the White House nomination last year, while the top Republican on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Paul Ryan, conceded the president's comments were "not appropriate".
"What we're trying to do around here is improve the tone, the civility of the debate. And this obviously doesn't help do that," Ryan told a news conference.
'Fights fire with fire'
Mr Trump's spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was staunch in defending her boss.
"I think that the president has been attacked mercilessly on personal accounts by members on that programme, and I think he's been very clear that when he gets attacked, he's going to hit back," she told the daily White House briefing.
"I think the American people elected somebody who's tough, who's smart, and who's a fighter, and that's Donald Trump. And I don't think that it's a surprise to anybody that he fights fire with fire."
"He's not going to sit back and be attacked by the liberal media, Hollywood elites," she added.
But at least half a dozen Republican lawmakers judged the president had crossed a line.
"Please just stop," wrote Senator Ben Sasse on Twitter.
"This isn't normal and it's beneath the dignity of your office."
"This is not okay," agreed Kansas lawmaker Lynn Jenkins.
The Trump-Brzezinski feud lit up the internet, where critics were reminded of Mr Trump's notorious attack last August on Fox reporter Megyn Kelly, who he said had "blood coming out of her wherever" after she challenged him in a campaign debate.
'Out of his mind'
Ms Brzezinski's employer MSNBC sprang to her defence, tweeting: "It's a sad day for America when the president spends his time bullying, lying and spewing petty personal attacks instead of doing his job."
But the TV host herself - whose father was Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to Jimmy Carter - appeared uncowed. She responded with a post of her own, a photo of a young child reaching for Cheerios cereal.
"Made for little hands," the caption read - a schoolyard taunt that has been levelled against the image-conscious Mr Trump since the days of his candidacy.
In her Thursday show, Ms Brzezinski had suggested the president was psychologically unhinged.
"Everybody in Washington, in the administration, needs to look at this from... a point of view where they're not lobotomised because you're sitting in there and you're so scared of him, and you think you need to suck up to the president."
If a boss at NBC, MSNBC's parent company, "started tweeting wildly about people's appearances, bullying people, talking about people in the competition, lying every day, undermining his managers, throwing them under the (bus) - that person would be thrown out.
"There would be concerns that the person who runs the company is out of his mind." Early in the 2016 campaign the "Morning Joe" hosts were accused of being too friendly with Mr Trump, a frequent guest on air.
The relationship however soured last August, when Mr Trump tweeted: "Some day, when things calm down, I'll tell the real story of @JoeNBC and his very insecure long-time girlfriend, @morningmika. Two clowns!"
Ms Brzezinski, 50, is engaged to marry her co-host Mr Scarborough, 54, a Republican former congressman.