Words that describe Billy Bush: Cousin of president. Host. Anchor. Entertainer.
This might be the question at the heart of whether Bush, the man egging on Donald Trump in a 2005 video in which he describes groping women, will keep his job at the “Today” show. In the hours after The Washington Post published the video Friday, a flood of commenters and “Today” show viewers took to social media to declare that Bush should be fired. On Sunday, a NBC spokesperson confirmed Bush would not appear on the show Monday morning. He is suspended, “pending further review” of the matter.
It is unclear whether Bush will ever return to the show, and what long-term consequences he will face for his behavior in the video, which shows him describing actress Arianne Zucker as “hot as s—” and “all I can see is legs,” then pressuring her to give himself and Trump hugs.
Bush’s only comment on the situation came in a statement Friday evening: “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.”
People who worked with Bush around that time and during his years as a radio host in Washington, D.C., expressed that they weren’t entirely surprised by the way Bush acted in the video, but not because they find him to be creepy or disrespectful of women. They noted that Bush has made his career out of being a boisterous, encouraging host who mimics the energy around him — even to a fault.
“He always let people shine in their own way, whether it was an intern or a musical guest,” said Janet Elliott, who spent five years co-hosting a morning radio program with Bush at D.C.’s Z104. “He was definitely on the entertainment side of things, always.”
Sammy Simpson, who worked as Z104’s marketing director at the time, said one of Bush’s main duties was to participate in entertaining stunts, like at a Cinco De Mayo event, where he agreed to wear a Velcro suit covered in prizes so listeners could knock them off with pool noodles.
“That’s his personality,” Simpson said. “He’s a silly entertainer.”
On “Today,” Bush is not expected to be a Matt Lauer or a George Stephanopoulos. His role is in the third hour of the show, which is traditionally strictly confectionery entertainment. He was chosen for the role after spending years fluffing up famous folks for “Access Hollywood,” where his job was to put celebrities at ease and get them to say or do something interesting for the camera. At the time of his interaction with Donald Trump, he was accompanying a flashy businessman and reality TV star onto the set of a bawdy soap opera. Their conversation would have still been extremely vulgar, but hardly hard-hitting news.
When Trump decided to run for president, that changed. A journalist in Bush’s position would have been expected to alert NBC executives that the tape existed. But should we be surprised that Bush, who spent his career kissing up to celebrities, did not turn around and throw Trump under the (hot-mic’d) bus, knowing that he, too, would be squished?
“He shouldn’t lose his job for being the type of person that got him the job,” said Shaun Robinson, who anchored “Access Hollywood” with Bush. She described the atmosphere of the show and workplaces like it as having “boys’ club” cultures where women “look the other way because they’re just so happy to be at the party.” So when Bush made the comments he did in the presence of an “Access Hollywood” producer, he wasn’t reprimanded. He was seen as doing his job.
“There were people on that bus who were in management positions, and if they considered that language to be offensive, they would have said ‘don’t say that,'” Robinson said. “And I don’t think that was said.”
Bush was already scolded online earlier this year for a lack of due diligence as an interviewer. After swimmer Ryan Lochte claimed he was robbed at gunpoint at the Rio Olympics, Bush was the first to interview him. He didn’t ask the questions that would have shown Lochte’s story was fabricated. When Lochte was exposed soon after, Matt Lauer re-interviewed the swimmer in a move that was seen as a snub to Bush.
Bush then defended Lochte, saying he lied about “some” details. Co-host Al Roker was not pleased with this characterization.
“No! No, Billy, not ‘some’ details,” Roker shot back on air. “There was no robbery. There was no pullover. There was nothing! Nobody cocked a gun to his head. He lied!”
Now, Bush’s words come under scrutiny once again. And to many, the specifics of his role at the time or the date they were recorded are irrelevant, given the vulgarity of his comments.
Some have compared his situation to that of Brian Williams, who NBC suspended and then eventually demoted after it was discovered he exaggerated claims about his time in combat zones including Iraq. Bush was not caught lying, and in comparison to Trump’s language, he was substantially more mild. But in the video, he is an enabler. He comments on a woman’s body and pressures her to touch him. He encourages Trump’s telling of a story in which he tries to sleep with one of Bush’s married colleagues. Worst, he laughed at the idea of women being groped.
It was these actions – not the decision not to inform higher-ups of Trump’s statements – that sparked the most outrage across NBC’s social-media platforms throughout the weekend.
“Don’t bring him back on air, unless you want droves of protesters at your studios everyday!” wrote a commenter beneath an unrelated story on the “Today” show’s Facebook page Sunday.
“I will no longer be watching the Today show, since they apparently condone the objectification and sexual harassment of women employees by Billy Bush at his last job,” another said.
One of the people tweeting their disbelief was Anthony Quintano, who ran “Today’s” social-media accounts until last year.
“The TODAY Show is going to have a real problem booking female guests while Billy Bush anchoring,” Quintano wrote. “A majority of the TODAY show production staff is female. Won’t go over well internally to keep Billy Bush around.”
His words were retweeted and favorited hundreds of times, echoed by a chorus of angry voices saying they plan on boycotting the show.
When reached by phone Sunday afternoon, Quintano said he doesn’t think that the online reaction will do much to influence the decision-makers at NBC who will determine Bush’s fate.
“From a TV executive’s view, social media is a loud but small audience compared to the actual audience,” he said. “So it kind of goes ignored.”
Late Sunday night, as Donald Trump prepared to take the stage at the second debate, the executives seem to have reversed course.
Although the “Today” show anchors will certainly be discussing Trump’s latest reaction to the video on Monday, Bush won’t be there to contribute.
This story has been updated.