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“I wish I had changed the topic… But I didn’t have the strength of character to do it.”
When the 2005 tape of Donald Trump casually bragging about his affinity for “grabbing ’em by the pussy” with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush came out last October, the election was a month away. It seemed to many like the sort of thing that would derail Trump’s candidacy: The language was remarkably graphic, even for Trump, and the refusal to acknowledge the reality of what he was doing — bragging about sexual assault — by insisting that the violent vulgarities caught on a hot mic amounted to nothing more than “locker room talk” was a disturbing and revealing one.
America reacted to this by electing Trump. NBC reacted by firing Bush.
“I will admit the irony is glaring,” Bush said in an interview published Sunday by The Hollywood Reporter.
This interview marks the first time Bush has spoken publicly about the tape, his complicity in Trump’s comments, and the fallout since his suspension, which came two days after the tape was released. He also doubles-down on his commitment to return to television in the future.
Why didn’t Bush stop Trump in the moment? He cites a failure of character and a “sycophantic” personality.
In hindsight — unsurprisingly — Bush wishes he’d been able to pivot to another subject. “He liked TV and competition. I could’ve said, ‘Can you believe the ratings on whatever?’ I didn’t have the strength of character to do it.”
Bush said that he has only listened to the tape three times and heard it for the first time “three days before the rest of the world heard it.” (But he also says that many people at NBC were aware of the tape’s existence, as was he, for years.) “I was shocked and alarmed and totally and completely gutted. It was awful. And my participation was awful, too. I remember that guy, he was almost sycophantic. It was my first year as co-host of Access Hollywood, and I was an insecure person, a bit of a pleaser, wanting celebrities to like me and fit in.”
Bush says he now has “a deeper understanding” of how women reacted to the recording.
“When a woman watches that tape — and this is what really hit me — they may be asking themselves, ‘Is that what happens when I walk out of a room? When I walk out of a meeting, is that what they’re saying about me? Are they sizing me up?’ I can’t live with that.”
Like many a man in the wake of misogyny-related PR disaster, Bush invoked his daughters: “If a moment like that arose again, I would shut it down quickly. I am in the women-raising business, exclusively. I have three daughters — Mary, Lillie, Josie — and I care very much about the world and the people they encounter.”
Bush said that Mary, then 15 years old and attending boarding school, called her dad crying demanding to know why he laughed at what Trump said on the bus. “It hit really hard, and I stopped for a second, and I said, ‘I have no answer for that that’s any good. I am really sorry. That was Dad in a bad moment a long time ago. You know me. I am really sorry that you had to hear and see that. I love you.’”
In 2005, Bush said, Trump was “the biggest star, not just on [NBC] but on TV, period.”
The second season of The Apprentice was airing, and season one had been a ratings smash, as Bush notes, ending with 44 million viewers. “It was a bona fide television phenomenon.”
At the time, Bush “spent a lot of time with Trump. He was my main assignment,” largely because “if we could get him three times a week in exclusive-type situations, he was always going to say something that was headline-worthy.” (Well… that is what happened.) “That was my job, and I did it well. I got access to Trump.”
The job included “a lot of downtime” during which Bush needed to banter and “connect with people” who he was interviewing on camera. In Trump’s case, though, Bush doesn’t recall “much interaction. He sort of talks and performs, and everybody reacts. And the topics were usually golf, gossip or women.”
Bush felt professional pressure to stay on Trump’s good side.
“I always had a nervous energy through these situations because he also decided a lot of times from day to day, moment to moment, who he liked, who was in and who was out, and my job was to remain in. I needed to be in, or maybe I’d be out.”
Bush was expecting to be able to apologize on air.
The tape came out on a Friday, and NBC suspended Bush two days later, which meant Bush wasn’t able to appear on the Today show to address his audience directly. He told THR that his original thought was “OK, we’ll go and own up to this moment,” but soon realized he wouldn’t be back on the show. “It hurt a lot, and I fell apart. But I had to put aside those feelings and get through legal things. I never had a legal team; I had never had a publicist before.”
He also describes what he would have said: An apology that acknowledged how “deeply embarrassed” and “ashamed” he felt, and a pledge to not sit in silent complicity when faced with similar situations in the future: “Going forward, you can be sure that I will not participate in anything like that. And I will keep my eyes out and do what I can to stop it from happening.”
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