One year ago today, the media and political world changed forever because a nuclear bomb exploded in the middle of a heated presidential campaign… and nothing happened. Three-hundred and sixty five days later, there are still a lot that we don’t fully understand about the release of the infamous Access Hollywood “pussy” tape, which was supposed to end Donald Trump’s campaign, but may have actually saved it.
As a quick review, Trump, who was already behind and had been declared the loser of the first debate, was hit by what seemed to be a sledgehammer. A videotape from a 2005 appearance on Access Hollywood where he and the host, Billy Bush, engage in extremely lewd and disrespectful comments about women, was suddenly released just two days before the second debate.
On the tape, Trump, who at the time was married to Melania who had just given birth, bragged about grabbing women he doesn’t know by the “pussy,” and that he gets away with it because he’s a “star” (I have always felt that the “star” comment was far more telling than “pussy,” but guess which one the media was more fascinated by). I was one of the many commentators who wrongly predicted that this would assure that he could not win the presidency. In retrospect, I now think that this episode probably helped him.
Yahoo has done an extraordinary job of documenting the complicated events which transpired over that fateful weekend one year ago. But there are still a couple of key elements which appear to be unknown, at least publicly.
Foremost among these is how and why the tape unexpectedly come out when it did. The Washington Post was the first to publish it, which was always weird because Access Hollywood is an NBC property. For the record, NBC released their own version of it literally just a few minutes later.
At the time, it felt like this had to be part of some very sophisticated and long-planned operation to release this “October Surprise” just before the second debate. It is now very obvious that how this went down was totally incompatible with that scenario.
It is clear that the Post’s reporter, David Farenthold, had absolutely no idea that this tape existed until that very morning and that whoever sent it to him was doing so as part of a very spur of the moment decision (otherwise, Farenthold would have been given at least a heads up before that Friday since, for all the leaker knew, the reporter could have been out of pocket that day). It is also extremely evident from the Yahoo documentary that the Clinton campaign had absolutely no idea that this was coming down the pipeline (interestingly, David Bossie, with whom I once made a movie, claimed to Yahoo he still thinks it was all a Clinton hit job, but he is either delusional, lying, or both).
What doesn’t make any sense, and what is also the key to unlocking this critical part of the mystery, is NBC’s role in all of this. By far the most overlooked part of Billy Bush’s lone interview since his career came crashing down because of all of this, is that Bush insists that the existence of the tape was well known within NBC, which logic dictates would be extremely likely given the extraordinary circumstances of their former employee being a leading candidate for president.
If we make the safe assumption that this is indeed true, it raises several important questions. For instance, why the heck was the tape never released during the beginning stages of the Republican primary process when Trump would have easily been taken out of the race by its existence? (For those who doubt this assertion based on Trump’s ability to withstand scandal, you need to remember that the number one element which kept Republicans with him after “the tape” was that he was the only option left to stop the wicked witch, Hillary Clinton.)
Perhaps NBC was all too happy to have a lucrative Trump/Clinton race where Hillary was the favorite and they were just waiting for the right moment during the general election to finally drop the bomb (the lack of scrutiny this entire issue has gotten in the last year is truly baffling to me). But if that was the case, how could they have possibly allowed themselves to get scooped on their own video and then somehow have the ability to have it ready to go just minutes after the Post beat them to it?
Some have speculated that NBC got cold feet about releasing it, or maybe were concerned about the impact on Bush, and didn’t want to be the primary source. Under this theory, someone connected to NBC leaked the tape to the Post, but again, why the incredibly poor planning of the leak? A similar theory has someone at NBC upset that their own company hadn’t released the tape and they wanted to force their hand, but then how was NBC ready to go so soon after the Post published it?
After watching the Yahoo documentary though, it is difficult to not at least consider another possibility altogether. The overriding takeaway from their reporting is that, in many ways, Trump actually benefited from the timing of the tape’s release because it completely overshadowed the revelation, that very day, of our intelligence agencies definitively concluding that the Russian government was interfering in the election on behalf of Trump.
What would have been a bombshell that could have dictated the narrative of the rest of the campaign and led the media to numerous salacious revelations about Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn, instead got totally defused and washed away by the tidal wave of “pussy” coverage. In its place, the Trump team’s counter attack using accusers of Bill Clinton as props at the debate, changed the subject and rallied their base. Weirdly, the best thing it may have done for the Trump campaign was to force “establishment” Republicans to criticize/abandon him, which sent a signal to unaffiliated voters who hate the status quo that Trump might really be their guy.
Now, just because someone benefits from a development does not mean that they planned it that way. So I am NOT saying that it was actually the Trump team which did this (though getting the four Clinton accusers to St. Louis in one day was certainly quite a trick).
What I am saying is that the timing of the release of the tape, in retrospect, could not have been better for Trump. It was too late to get another candidate on the ballot, and the Russia story was then forgotten until after he shocked the world by winning. That might all very well be a coincidence, but, if that is indeed the case, Donald Trump really is the luckiest politician in our modern history.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at email@example.com.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.