Negotiations resumed Thursday between NBC and embattled Today co-host Billy Bush over the terms of his exit from the network. Sources say a deal is far from finalized, but after a break for the Jewish holiday yesterday, both sides are returning to the table expecting a speedy resolution.
The exit is likely to be amicable, but the former Access Hollywood host has leverage; sources confirm he had told NBC colleagues about his lewd 2005 conversation with Donald Trump at least as far back as August, when he was boasting about it while covering the Olympics in Rio. He was there to make his debut as the newest member of the Today show team. It's unclear exactly whom he told. And that is said to be one of the issues NBC is looking into since suspending Bush from the 9 a.m. hour of Today in the wake of the tape's Oct. 7 release.
NBC News sources insist news division management - chairman Andy Lack and Today senior vp Noah Oppenheim - did not learn about the tape that captured Bush and Trump on a hot mic and off camera for an Access Hollywood segment engaged in a misogynist and predatory conversation until early last week.
"NBC News did exactly what you would expect from a great news organization," an NBC spokesperson said in a statement issued two days after the tape was released. "As soon as we saw the tape and made the assessment it was undoubtedly newsworthy, we moved quickly and deliberately to get it published and to do so in the most responsible way."
Sources say Bush does not want to make the negotiations rancorous by naming names. But it's unclear what NBC's posture is in the talks. The network could continue to pay him out on his contract, which sources say is worth close to $3 million annually. But if it attempts to fire him for cause - perhaps invoking a morality clause standard in media contracts - talks could quickly go south.
Bush, 45, was no stranger to Today when he officially joined the morning-show franchise earlier this season. A first cousin of former president George W. Bush and erstwhile GOP aspirant Jeb Bush, Billy had hosted NBC's syndicated infotainment magazine Access Hollywood for 15 years and spent six years on its spinoff, Access Hollywood Live. When he expressed more than a year ago a desire to move on - and to relocate from Los Angeles to New York - executives began to think about where he would fit in. The 9 a.m. hour of Today - long considered the weakest link between the flagship 7-9 a.m. program co-anchored by Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie and the crowd-pleasing 10 a.m. hour presided over by Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford - was a logical fit.
"Billy has been a part of the Today extended family for quite some time - he brings boundless energy, a great interviewing style and a deep knowledge of pop culture," Oppenheim wrote in an internal memo to Today staffers last May, adding that Bush "has covered and interviewed literally everyone in Hollywood."
Of course, it turns out that Bush had rubbed some celebrities - and their publicists - the wrong way as the host of the gossipy Access. Since the tape was revealed, numerous publicists have relayed doubts about Bush.
When the tape leaked, one celebrity publicist told THR, "People who were already booked on the Today show were saying, 'Maybe we should look at GMA or make sure it's not him doing the interview.' There are people who wouldn't talk to him before the news. At Access, he was always 'that guy.' There were people who were anxious about him before he started [on Today]."
Marcel Pariseau, a partner at True Public Relations, who has a number of high-profile female clients, including Scarlett Johansson, 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."
Bush, represented by WME, attorney Robert Lange, publicist Jill Fritzo and crisis PR guru David Goldin, likely will agree not to discuss the terms of his exit if a deal can be worked out to his liking. But if not, Bush could choose to go public with his side of the Trump story and NBC's role in the debacle.
Representatives for Bush and NBC declined comment.