In a 2005 outtake from Access Hollywood that’s racked up Zapruder-level views, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump makes a series of vulgar boasts about how he treats women. Egging him on is Billy Bush, former coanchor of NBC’s Access and (at least as of presstime) cohost of Today.
As the two are shown exiting a bus and being greeted by Days of Our Lives star Arianne Zucker, the nephew of George H.W. Bush delivers a phrase that will surely follow him around for a while: “How about a little hug for ‘the Bushy?’”
Those three minutes of tape have altered an already alternate-universe campaign season. But for Bush, the episode appears to have ended his network run at NBC just months after it began. Multiple sources reported all last week that his indefinite suspension was in the process of becoming a final separation, with the relevant question being when, not if, it will happen.
The tape saga comes not long after NBC’s nightmare with Brian Williams, the former network anchor suspended for exaggerating tales of his reporting exploits before a second chance restored him to a lesser role on MSNBC. Unlike the Williams affair, the Bush case exploded after someone from inside NBC reportedly leaked the footage of Bush and Trump to The Washington Post. Through reps, Bush has indicated that the leak may be legally actionable.
Even if he doesn’t file suit, Bush clearly faces a tricky road to resuming his career as the figure Esquire once dubbed “the Bob Woodward of the red carpet.” When the tape surfaced Oct. 7, NBC execs initially indicated the possibility of redemption, possibly via an on-air apology. Then they read the swarm of negative comments and heard opposition from women on both sides of the camera. (Former Access colleagues, notably, have stuck up for Bush.) The backlash has made Bush’s missteps in reporting theRyan Lochte mess last summer atthe Rio Olympics—called out on the air by his Today cohost Al Roker—seem tame by comparison.
What carried even more weight were the protests of the very A-list contacts Bush had spent more than a decade trying to cultivate. Marcel Pariseau, a partner at True Public Relations who reps Scarlett Johansson and other female clients, wrote on Facebook: “He was rude and lewd to a few female clients of mine. Boycotting the 9 a.m. hour of the Today show.” Bumble Ward, a veteran whose clients include Sofia Coppola and Mira Nair, also took to Facebook, recalling Bush as “downright dismissive” when she asked if he would interview her nominated director client on the Oscars red carpet. “He actually turned away with a roll of the eyes,” Nair wrote. In an epic battle with archrival Good Morning America, the idea that Today could lose bookings was anathema, so NBC opted to indefinitely suspend Bush on Oct. 9.
For the network, there are aspects of this extending well beyond the daily ratings race. This has become just the latest instance of NBC misjudging the line between entertainment and news, a line Trump has rejoiced in blurring. Saturday Night Live featured candidate Trump as a guest host in October 2015. A year later, “Weekend Update” coanchor Michael Che gave a puzzling interview to Politico, calling Trump “smart” and “not a racist.” At least those comments weren’t actually broadcast on NBC—but Matt Lauer’s were when the Today anchor moderated the network’s Commander-in-Chief Forum Sept. 7 and drew fire for going soft on Trump.