Reporter David Fahrenthold got a phone call around 11 a.m. Friday from a source with a tip about Donald Trump. The source asked: Would Fahrenthold be interested in seeing some previously unaired video of Trump?
Fahrenthold didn’t hesitate. Within a few moments of watching an outtake of footage from a 2005 segment on “Access Hollywood,” the Washington Post reporter was on the phone, calling Trump’s campaign, “Access Hollywood” and NBC for reaction.
By 4 p.m., his story was causing shock waves.
The recording, of course, was of Trump’s vulgar comments about women as he rode on an “Access Hollywood” bus with the show’s then-host, Billy Bush. With Bush’s encouragement, and an open microphone recording him, Trump describes in crude terms his unsuccessful attempt to seduce a woman named Nancy and brags that his celebrity status enables him to grope women.
Fahrenthold’s story about the recording — which some observers said might deal a death blow to Trump’s presidential campaign — was the second major revelation, or “October surprise,” that came courtesy of an anonymous source. The New York Times last week revealed that Trump took a $916 million loss on his 1995 taxes, which could have relieved him from paying federal income taxes for as many as 18 years. The Times’ story was based on tax returns supplied by a source whose identity is unknown even to the Times.
Fahrenthold, a 16-year veteran of The Post, said he knows who pointed him to the “Access Hollywood” video, but he will not reveal the identity because he promised anonymity to his tipster. But like many readers, he said he was surprised and shocked by what he saw on the tape.
“It’s rare to find out something new about Donald Trump,” said Fahrenthold, who has produced scoops about Trump’s charitable foundation this year. “So much of his past and his history is well known.”
But this was new, he noted: “It’s not just, ‘Look at her; she’s a 10,’ the kind of thing he used to say on the ‘Howard Stern Show.’ It was more than that. He tells you about his behavior.”
As it happens, Fahrenthold was racing to produce his story in competition with “Access Hollywood” itself. The syndicated show, owned by NBC Universal, had found the Trump recording in its archives and was preparing its own story. NBC News, tipped by “Access Hollywood,” was also aware of the tape and was preparing a story, which it intended to broadcast after the entertainment show aired the recording. It was not clear, however, when “Access Hollywood” and NBC News were planning to go ahead with their stories.
Fahrenthold’s calls to NBC and “Access Hollywood” on Friday sped up their timetables. MSNBC reporter Katy Tur reported on the tape about seven minutes after The Post broke the story online.
Fahrenthold’s story proved to be the most concurrently viewed article in the history of The Post’s website; more than 100,000 people read it simultaneously at one point on Friday. The interest was so heavy that it briefly crashed the servers of the newspaper’s internal tracking system.
The recording’s profane language forced media organizations to decide whether to air it unexpurgated. CNN, among others, left several of Trump’s crude references intact, although it bleeped out an f-word. The Post used dashes to represent two profanities and one crude reference to female anatomy in the text but left Trump’s reference to “tits” uncensored. The newspaper did not bleep or dash out anything in the accompanying video’s audio and subtitles.
Post executive editor Marty Baron said the newspaper’s concerns about the story were “pretty simple. Was the video authentic, and was it relevant? There was never a question about the latter, and David Fahrenthold quickly verified the video’s authenticity.”
As for the recording’s language, he said, “We make our best judgments in weighing taste against clarity about what was said. I think we accomplished that in our approach.”
The story not only damaged Trump but also elicited intense criticism of Bush on social media. Bush, 44, a cousin of former president George W. Bush, is now a co-host of NBC’s “Today” show. Noting that “Today” has a huge following among women, some critics called for Bush’s resignation.
In a statement issued by NBC News late Friday, Bush said, “Obviously I’m embarrassed and ashamed. It’s no excuse, but this happened eleven years ago. I was younger, less mature, and acted foolishly in playing along. I’m very sorry.”
NBC News produces the “Today” show and oversees MSNBC. “Access Hollywood” is part of a separate division, NBC Entertainment.
NBC News declined to comment on Friday. People at the network said there has been no discussion yet about what, if any, discipline Bush may face.
NBC News also delayed action last year when media accounts revealed that lead anchor Brian Williams had told distorted accounts of his reporting on the Iraq War in 2003. (Williams was eventually forced to resign as anchor of “NBC Nightly News” and is now an anchor on MSNBC.)
A spokeswoman for “Access Hollywood” did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
The quick succession of events left several questions unanswered, among them: Why did a 2005 recording of Trump remain in the “Access Hollywood” archives for so long before becoming public? And what other damaging outtakes, if any, remain in the archives of NBC’s “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” the reality shows in which Trump starred?
In a statement, Trump did not deny the recording but called it “locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago.” He added, “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course, not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended.”