The fallout from Friday’s release of a 2005 recording of Donald Trump making lewd comments about women has set off a reporting frenzy this weekend questioning the fate of the GOP presidential ticket with just four weeks to go before Election Day.
“This is the most incredible couple of days in the most amazing campaign that any of us have ever covered,” Howard Kurtz, host of Fox News’ “Media Buzz,” told Variety.
The fact that the campaign was walloped by the bombshell the day before the second debate between Trump and his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, greatly raises the stakes for Trump on Sunday. Trump was already going into that contest on the defensive after what was widely considered a weak performance in their first meeting on Sept. 26.
John Dickerson, anchor of CBS’ “Face the Nation,” was cautious on the question of whether the 2005 tape will hurt Trump’s standing with his supporters. But he predicted that the public interest in the debate, to be held at Washington University in St. Louis, will skyrocket.
“The latest news reanimates big themes of this election: the split between Trump and the party elites, the gut-level connection between Donald Trump and his supporters, and the extent to which this race is already baked in with voters and therefore is impervious to new information,” Dickerson told Variety. However, “Donald Trump’s debate performance will be one of the most-watched moments in political history, I think,” Dickerson said. “He had a huge challenge before the latest revelation. Now the challenges are even greater on that debate stage.”
The mushrooming Trump scandal has also heightened pressure on the media figures that have been connected to Trump. Media industry insiders are questioning the fate of Billy Bush as an anchor of NBC’s “Today,” given his remarks in the 2005 off-mic conversation with Trump, held when Bush was a co-anchor of “Access Hollywood.”
Meanwhile, there are increasingly public calls for producer Mark Burnett to address questions about Trump’s off-screen behavior during his 11-year run as host of “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice.” Burnett’s company owned the NBC series until his One Three Media was sold in 2014 to MGM Television. Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported on multiple incidents of Trump allegedly making lewd remarks and inappropriate overtures to women on the “Apprentice” set.
Burnett owned “Apprentice” outright — a rarity in TV these days — because he brought the show to NBC at a time when the producer was red-hot thanks to the success of CBS’ “Survivor” and NBC was in desperate need of a hit. The original plan for the series was to have a new star CEO at the center each season. But that plan changed quickly after Trump proved to be a natural TV star. Trump was known to have a profit participation interest in “Apprentice” during his 2004-2015 run on the show. It’s unclear if Trump still retains a stake.
Burnett is now president of MGM Television and Digital Group. The archival footage from the “Apprentice” franchise is controlled by MGM. Burnett has steadfastly refused to comment on anything involving Trump since the start of the reality TV star’s presidential campaign in June 2015. Through a spokeswoman, Burnett again declined to comment on Saturday.
“We know there have to be more tapes,” Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” said Saturday on CNN.
TV producer Bill Pruitt, who worked on the early seasons of “Apprentice,” asserted on Twitter Saturday evening that “there are far worse” recordings of Trump to be found.
— Bill Pruitt (@billpruitt) October 8, 2016
“Celebrity Apprentice” is set to relaunch in Jan. 2 with Arnold Schwarzenegger as host. Schwarzenegger joined a growing list of prominent Republicans on Saturday by disavowing Trump and declaring he will not vote for him on Nov. 8.
The political calculus for Republicans and for Trump in the wake of the recording that surfaced Friday evening dominated cable news networks on Saturday as the damage from the recording spread. The recording features Trump boasting of using his celebrity as a license to grope women — he tells a laughing Bush that he simply “grabs them by the p—-” — and that he made a big effort to seduce a married woman, later identified as Bush’s former “Access Hollywood” co-host Nancy O’Dell.
With GOP leaders calling on Trump to step down for the good of the party, there was wide speculation across news outlets about the possibility of his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, either taking over the top of the ticket or resigning from the campaign. Pence canceled plans to appear Saturday at a Republican fundraiser event in Elkhorn, Wis. with House Speaker Paul Ryan. Ryan disinvited Trump from the same event on Friday in the wake of the disclosures. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker reported that the Pence camp was “absolutely apoplectic” about the situation.
Kurtz was critical of that rampant speculation, noting that the party rules make it highly unlikely that the Republicans could dump Trump from the ticket. He also criticized what he sees as “the sense of glee” among some reporters and pundits weighing in on the Trump comments.
“As compelling a story as this is, we ought to make sure that we’re being fair,” Kurtz said.
On Saturday, hordes of reporters and Trump supporters and detractors gathered outside of the candidate’s home base of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. CNN reported that some Trump supporters chanted “the media is corrupt” and carried “Women for Trump” signs.
Numerous commentators on cable news, including Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Menninger appearing on Fox News’ “The Journal Editorial Report,” likened the situation for the GOP to the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation from the White House in 1974.
Fox News came in for a drubbing on social media Friday night after the Trump story broke, with many observers accusing the network of under-playing the story in favor of coverage of Hurricane Matthew as it hit the coast of Florida. Fox News countered that Trump was the lead story on all of its primetime programs and that even the channel’s most vociferous Trump supporter, Sean Hannity, criticized his comments.
Kurtz noted that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton also had to grapple with WikiLeaks revelations of what were billed as her prepared remarks for speeches she made to financial institutions after leaving the State Department in 2013. There have been calls for her to release the transcripts those speeches in order to be compared to her policy positions and campaign statements about economic and regulatory issues.
“I get that the Hillary speeches aren’t sexy but it is still an important story,” Kurtz said. “The coverage of Trump’s problems versus that story is running about 100 to one.”
As for Bush, news biz veterans were divided about whether he would be able to survive his association with Trump’s vulgar remarks. Sources said that a key question is whether Bush alerted his superiors to the existence of the tape or whether he was surprised by the revelation on Friday.
Bush has only been a formal member of the “Today” anchor team since August, when he exited “Access Hollywood.” He’s scheduled to be in his regular “Today” anchor slot on Monday but industry sources predicted that could well change. Given the firestorm around the Trump tape, Bush would have to address it on air, an unpredictable prospect for both the anchor and NBC News.