“I have had a unique relationship with Donald Trump. I’m the one who put him and The Apprentice on the air at NBC,” Zucker said today, appearing at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.
“I’ve known who he is and what he is for a long time.”
The former Today EP turned NBC News chief turned NBCU chief described Trump as a guy who always claimed his ratings were bigger than they actually were on The Apprentice and who initially thought NBC should pay him $6M per episode to star, because that’s what the collective cast of Friends made at that comedy series’ height.
Zucker’s longstanding relationship with the real estate developer turned reality TV star helped him realize much earlier than did some of his news competitors what a good shot at success Trump had in politics. But he insisted CNN with its whole-hog approach to covering the candidate is not responsible for his GOP nomination.
That said, Zucker acknowledged the cable news network might have gone slightly overboard with its telecasts of Trump rallies in their entirety, in the early days of the race. In the network’s defense, Zucker noted you never knew what Trump was going to say, and the coverage brought good ratings, indicating viewer interest. Plus, Trump was very TV friendly in those days, saying yes to nearly every interview request while fellow GOP hopefuls Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, for instance, let a couple months go by without agreeing to an interview.
Zucker insisted he was unaware of any allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women by Trump when he was in business with the real estate developer at NBCU. Zucker sidestepped a question as to whether Billy Bush should lose his NBC News job over the recently released 2005 Access Hollywood hot-mic tape. In that tape, Apprentice star Trump and Access Hollywood host Bush talk about Trump being so famous he can kiss and grope women with impunity, Trump’s unsuccessful attempt to have sex with Bush’s co-host at the time, and the body of the NBC soap actress they are meeting for an Access Hollywood segment.
Had CNN gotten its hands on the tape, “I see no reason why we wouldn’t have published it as soon as we verified it,” he said, drawing contrast to NBC News’ days-long delay, which led to the news division getting scooped by Washington Post. Zucker did not speak to how he would have handled the situation were he still running NBC News at the time.
Among the questions put to Zucker by Washington Post’s Lois Romano, Zucker boasted about CNN’s improved ratings position relative to Fox News Channel these days. But dodged talk of FNC star Megyn Kelly, who contract comes up next year, calling her “a tremendous news anchor,” noting the TV news industry is her oyster, and concluding coyly, “I’ll leave it there.”