Billy Bush has been cut from NBC’s “Today” show for his role in enabling Donald Trump’s lewd talk about women in a 2005 hot-mic tape. Settlement details were not immediately disclosed.
The end came on Monday after the network spent over a week negotiating the terms of departure with Bush and his crisis lawyer, which followed a weekend of internal discussion about whether to punish him and how.
Hours prior, a CNN interview with Melania Trump was released in which she said Bush “egged on” Trump in the tape. She said Bush and Trump were engaged in “boy talk” and that Trump was “led on, like egged on, from the host to say dirty and bad stuff.”
A note went out to NBC staff from “Today” executive producer Noah Oppenheim on Monday, announcing that “Billy Bush will be leaving the ‘Today’ show’s 9 a.m. hour, effective today. While he was a new member of the ‘Today’ team, he was a valued colleague and longtime member of the broader NBC family. We wish him success as he goes forward.”
Bush released his own statement through NBC. “I am deeply grateful for the conversations I’ve had with my daughters, and for all of the support from family, friends and colleagues. I look forward to what lies ahead,” he said.
Thus ends Bush’s abbreviated time at “Today,” NBC’s beleaguered morning show, where Bush was promoted to co-host the third hour only this summer, after 12 years as an anchor on NBC’s entertainment-news show, “Access Hollywood.”
Bush’s fate hinged on what he knew about Trump’s toxic tape, when he knew it and whether and when he told his new bosses at NBC News about it as soon as Trump declared he was running for the GOP nomination for president.
Bush, 45, could not have been indifferent to the ground-changing impact of the tape in presidential politics: He’s the nephew of former President George H.W. Bush and cousin to former President George W. Bush and his brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was thoroughly trashed and then trounced by Trump in the GOP primary.
In 2005, when Trump was the star of NBC’s “The Apprentice” and Bush was an “Access” host, they arrived on an “Access” bus to tape a visit to a soap opera set. While both were miked, Trump was recorded talking in obscene terms about groping women by their genitals, trying to pressure Bush’s married co-star Nancy O’Dell into a sexual relationship, and claiming he could get away with anything because he was a “star.” During the misogynistic conversation, Bush laughed, joined in and egged him on.
For 11 years, the recording remained unseen and unheard in an “Access” vault, until someone at the show unearthed it and “Access” and NBC News began preparing a report on it. When that report didn’t air immediately, someone leaked the tape to the Washington Post on Oct. 7.
It caused instant turmoil in Trump’s already struggling campaign: He at first dismissed it as mere “locker-room talk,” then apologized, then returned to discounting it as insignificant and irrelevant “words.”
Meanwhile, the tape turned out to be catastrophic for Bush, previously known for his genial demeanor, goofy antics and often superficial interviews with multiple A-list stars over the years on “Access.”
He issued a contrite statement hours after the tape leaked, saying he was ashamed and embarrassed, blaming his youth and immaturity at the time (he was 33, married and the father of daughters).
On Oct. 9, NBC announced it was suspending Bush, effective the next day. “There is simply no excuse for Billy’s language and behavior on that tape,” Oppenheim said in a memo to the staff.
Journalists mocked Bush for his lack of news judgment: Why didn’t he say something about the tape? Did he just forget about it?
“This is the biggest story of the political season, and he knew about it and did not report it. A journalist’s job is to report the news, not cover it up,” said University of Maryland broadcast journalism professor and ex-NBC News staffer Mark Feldstein.
As derision and outrage against Bush flooded social media, he and NBC began negotiating his exit. He hired a New York-based PR crisis management team, and by Oct. 13, he had retained a legal power broker, Marshall Grossman, who’s represented major players such as Steven Spielberg.
Grossman began pushing back publicly against the widespread media criticism of Bush, telling the Hollywood Reporter that Bush was just doing his job interviewing Trump. If Bush had been passive or had chastised Trump, “Billy would have been out of a job the next day,” Grossman said.
To put Bush’s go-away settlement in context, the network paid Ann Curry $10 million to vacate her “Today” host chair in 2012 after a year in the top job. She then shifted to a new role as anchor-at-large and international correspondent before leaving NBC in 2015. But the move, calculated to regain “Today’s” lead over ABC’s “Good Morning America,” not only failed to achieve that but gave the show and hosts Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie a PR black eye.
Bush was just months into a three-year contract and was reported to be paid about $3 million a year.
Maria Puente, USA TODAY