WHEN BILLY Bush greets me at the ferry, he’s dressed like the American dream. Red, white, and blue, from his cap and his shorts to his flip-flops and wrist sweatband. Bush puts on a white mask for a tour around Maine’s North Haven Island only when he sees that I’m wearing one, but assures me I don’t need it. He’s been on the island three weeks, he says. He’s safe. The logic doesn’t quite work—I have not been quarantining in a Maine idyll for nearly a month—but Bush insists I needn’t wear a mask on his behalf, implying a Bush-conferred immunity as a pandemic ravages the world.
Bush’s security makes sense; after all, he tells me, before the worst thing that ever happened to him happened to him, “nothing bad ever happened to me.” He invited me here to see the family home where nothing bad ever happened. But he knows we’re going to talk about the tape—if you’ve heard of Billy Bush, you know which one—and its inevitable reprise as the 2020 election looms. When I tell him he’s either very unself-aware or has nothing to hide, Bush perhaps affirms both: “I’ve got nothing to hide,” he says.
Indeed, Bush couldn’t be more open as he introduces me to relatives and takes me around town, showing off the island’s main street (Main Street), the road with the tennis court on it (Tennis Court Road), the road with a golf course on it (Golf Course Road), and the cove with three homes owned by members of the Bush family. Bush, who always seems to be mid-snack, speaks in an off-duty announcer’s voice, a patrician take on Regis Philbin’s staccato. He greets nearly everyone by first and last name, from Marty Molloy the lobsterman to members of his own family. His former wife is staying in the family cabin with two of their three daughters while Bush looks after his mother and father in the main house, where Jonathan Bush Sr. is recovering from a broken hip. His ex is introduced as “Sydney Bush” when she drops off a cheese plate.
Bush’s continued guilelessness is surprising given the video the world watched four years ago, one month before the 2016 presidential election. At the start of the then-11-year-old hot-mic footage leaked to The Washington Post, Donald Trump is off-camera on a bus, preparing for an appearance on NBC’s entertainment-news program Access Hollywood by delivering a profane stream-of-consciousness monologue detailing several unwanted sexual advances. The future president and then-Apprentice star’s horny diatribe is punctuated by the Beavisesque snickers of Bush, Access Hollywood correspondent and, in this video, Trump hype man. Bush is the sidekick in the moment that will eventually derail his own life. Or, as Billy Bush describes his 33-year-old self, he’s a “little suck-up cog” and “little suck-up Billy Bush” and “the fluffer.”
Trump’s muttering, “Grab them by the pussy” is the most famous part of the tape. But the most heartbreaking moment is when Bush and Trump exit the bus and are greeted by the woman Trump had just been fantasizing about grabbing. The actress shakes Trump’s hand and Bush says, “How about a little hug for the Donald?” The actress leans in, the punchline to a joke she hasn’t heard and that’s been made at her expense.
Bush was publicly fired, shamed, and contrite. In the middle of all of this (but not because of it, Bush says), he and his wife got divorced. In 2019, after years of media exile, Bush returned to his vocation, as host of the broadcast entertainment-news program Extra. Today, he presents himself as a man willing to self-assess as honestly as he can. “I’m afraid if you rolled back many moments that I thought were private, you could do a highlight reel that would last ten hours,” Bush says, popping a piece of cheese into his mouth. “I mean, I’ve many times not been my best self.” He admits that if he were his 33-year-old self on that bus with Trump again, even knowing what he knows now, he doesn’t believe he could have done anything other than simply not laugh, or direct the conversation away from women and onto one of Trump’s other interests: golf, New York sports. “I’m not going to give [you] a pandering answer,” Bush says. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
What’s tricky is that the things that led to the demise of Bush’s career and emotional well-being are the same ones that led to his ascent. “I’m a really hard worker,” Bush says. “Creative. Fun . . . Affable.” Hosting is an amoral art of being in the moment, of not letting anything derail the proceedings. On the tape, Bush’s job was to prepare Trump to be Trumpy in what amounted to an ad for another NBC show.
Bush claims, “I’ve moved on completely.” But he also keeps docking the conversation on the subject of Trump, NBC, and what happened in his mid-40s when the tape came out. “How could you take this little slice of shit and paint me with it?” he asks, features contorting in pain and disbelief. Yes, he heard Trump say all of those things on that bus and didn’t stop him. But the man who said them got elected president, by us. And unlike other men who were exposed in the #MeToo reckoning following Trump’s election, Bush insists he has put in the work to try and be better. “I saw it, and I did not like what I saw,” Bush says of the tape today. Four years after the lowest moment in his life, he wants you to know he’s not little suck-up Billy Bush anymore, but a sympathetic journalist unafraid to stand up for himself.
“I’ve been done,” Bush says of why he’s finally talking so much about this now. “I’m not going to be done again.” But then Bush’s confidence limpens. He looks across the table for assurance. “I hope I have some sort of immunity. Do I get immunity?”
WHEN THE now-49-year-old Billy Bush was a kid, he bicycled with such abandon that he sustained multiple concussions. His mother, Jody, procured a motorcycle helmet to protect her son when he could not stop and protect himself. Bush says he has ADHD, to which he attributes his evident tendency to impulsively throw himself into things. After the tape, it was yoga and self-help. Now it’s Peloton and golf and tennis and evening swims across the cove with his niece, whom he calls “Anna Bush.”
Bush’s father, the brother of President George H. W. Bush, was what Bush calls “a little emotionally unavailable” when he was growing up. “He’s that old stoic,” Bush says of Jonathan Bush Sr. “It was not a, put his arm around you and say, ‘I love you, son.’ That’s never going to happen. But we know that he did.” Bush became a pleaser: “Like me, like me, like me,” he says his old internal monologue went. “Always tell a joke to get out of a weird moment . . . keep the ball in the air, keep everybody happy. We’re having fun. We’re making laughs. We’re making silly things.”
Bush was a star lacrosse player and C student at Colby College in Maine. When he graduated, he got his first job in broadcasting, at a radio station near Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. The manager of Oldies 105, Bob Adams, didn’t particularly need another DJ, so he also conscripted Bush into selling ads to local businesses. Bush learned that the best way to make the sale was to convince owners to record the ads themselves: “Letting them hear themselves,” as Bush describes it. “That spoke to their ego.”
One car dealership was advertising with six other radio stations in the region. Every week, Adams would send Bush there to talk to the sales manager in charge of radio buys, and every week the man would send him away with nothing. Sometimes on the nearly hour-long drive home after his weekly failure, Bush would pull over to the side of the road and cry.
At the urging of Adams, Bush finally asked why the manager bought ads from every station but his. “If you had a nice set of legs and some boobs, that would be a start,” he remembers the man saying. Instead of bristling at the crude remark, that’s exactly what Bush went and did: A few days later, the ultimate team player returned in full drag—a miniskirt and sock-stuffed top. “Hello,” said Bush, approximating a Swedish accent. “Billy never told me how cute you are. I was wondering if you’d like to advertise on our radio station?” The manager, apparently delighted by Bush’s brazenness, signed the contract. As a result, Bush’s salary doubled, which allowed him to rent a house on the lake, as well as buy a boat that would later sink. After New Hampshire came five years at a Top 40 station in Washington, D. C., then local TV. In 2002, he Billy-Bushed his way onto Access Hollywood, where he showed a chaotic instinct for humanizing people. Rob Silverstein, who ran the series for 20 years, says, “He’s always looking to ‘What can I do that no one else is gonna do? How do I make it interesting?’ And he has that charm.”
The charm was deployed by Bush in booking celebrity talent and establishing a rapport with interview subjects that would hopefully translate to televised magic. A former Today-show staffer recalls the dissociation it takes to chat backstage with ratings-attracting creeps. “You almost have to not be offended by what comes out of people’s mouths,” he says. Bush’s former field producer Mat Baxt explains that the goal of Access Hollywood and all other entertainment-news programs is “to get the biggest star you can possibly get for your show and put them in the best possible light.”
Bush was good at this. And so he became the primary interviewer of Donald Trump, then the biggest star on the network. “He loved me,” Bush says. “Loved me. I think I was a good foil.” And Bush was—the easygoing, lower-status counterpart to Trump’s bloviating bravado. Trump’s crudeness was widely known and tolerated at NBCUniversal and its parent company, General Electric, from the fluffing bus to the C suite. When the tape was recorded in 2005, GE was run by CEO and chairman Jeff Immelt. Bush’s brother, Jonathan, who later worked with Immelt at a health-care company, says Immelt told him that Trump would demand to meet with Immelt on a regular basis, and frequently used inappropriate language. (Immelt did not agree to be interviewed for this story, but another person familiar with these meetings confirms that characterization, though he says Immelt “thought [the] tape was awful and Billy deserved to be fired.”)
It’s easy to see how this all added up to The Moment, when Trump says The Line. (Bush has always maintained he was looking out the window at the cameraman for the cue to get off the bus and never heard it until a few days before the tape leaked.) There have no doubt been countless moments in Donald Trump’s life like the one on the leaked tape, tacit affirmations pushing him along his path to the Oval Office. And on the other side of the transaction was Bush, who orchestrated countless moments like the ones he had with Trump, exploiting celebrities for entertainment until he reached the pinnacle of professional affability: a full-time job on NBC’s Today show.
FOR 11 YEARS the tape was forgotten, buried in a special drawer at Access Hollywood reserved for life-ruining pieces of footage. Bush was aware of its existence but had never heard or seen it. Trump became the Republican nominee for president right before Bush started hosting the 9:00 a.m. hour of Today, when the tone shifts from news to late-morning wine chat.
Bush says he would bring up the 2005 off-camera conversation with Trump to his coworkers. “Did you hear what this guy said about Mexicans?” he might say. “Well, one time I was on a bus with him and he said the most disgusting things.” In these retellings, Bush did not mention his role in the interaction.
Executives at NBC News seemed pleased with Bush’s on-air performance, and while at the 2016 Rio Olympics for one of his first big assignments, he got a scoop interviewing swimmer Ryan “Jeah” Lochte about getting mugged, which was almost immediately revealed as a fiction meant to cover up Lochte’s bad behavior. When the Today team returned to New York, a senior NBC News staffer says Matt Lauer confronted Bush about tabloid gossip that Lauer was threatened by Bush. Bush’s brother, Jonathan, remembers Billy repeating Lauer’s words at the time: “The rumors about you and I and competition will stop immediately. Do you hear me?” (The NBC staffer confirms that anecdote; Bush can’t comment. However, another person with knowledge of the conversation disputes that Lauer ever felt threatened, because Bush had shown limited ability to cover serious news.)
Then a producer remembered the tape that was sitting in the drawer of terrible tapes. Early in the week of October 2, Silverstein, who was still running Access Hollywood in NBC’s entertainment division, says he dug it out, had someone splice the disintegrating footage, and sent it to NBC’s general counsel to see if he could legally air it without everyone involved giving consent. Bush recalls watching the tape for the first time in the office of Today’s then–senior producer, Noah Oppenheim, who now runs NBC News. He sat at Oppenheim’s desk, listening to himself laugh, while Oppenheim stood, watching Bush watch himself. Though it was worse than Bush remembered—he now heard about the pussy-grabbing—he did not understand what was about to happen. (Oppenheim did not agree to be interviewed for this story.)
NBC News asked Rob Silverstein to air the tape by Friday; he wanted to wait until Monday or Tuesday, when Access Hollywood’s ratings were typically higher. But he never got the chance. On the morning of Friday, October 7, the tape was sent to David Fahrenthold at The Washington Post and posted at 4:02 p.m. that day. Bush was shocked: Despite discussions about the footage airing, he didn’t believe that could legally happen. He saw the Washington Post story break while on a plane to Los Angeles. Though Bush says he was assured his job was safe, he began weeping and didn’t stop until the flight landed at LAX. (Officially, only Fahrenthold at the Post and his source know who sent Fahrenthold the tape. But according to two NBC staffers, there has been no internal investigation to find out how the network’s property, which would be the biggest news story of the election, was leaked. NBC declined to comment.)
Back in New York, a senior NBC staffer says several female producers approached Oppenheim and then–NBC News chairman Andy Lack, whose tenure would soon become entangled with Lauer’s termination amid allegations of sexual misconduct and controversy over the network’s reporting decisions around Harvey Weinstein. (Lack did not respond to interview requests for this story.) The women said they felt uncomfortable about the 11-year-old tape—about Bush’s laughter, certainly. But also unsettling was the hug Bush facilitated between Trump and the woman he’d just been vocally fantasizing about assaulting.
Bush prepared to apologize on-air on Monday, and believed that he had Lauer’s support to stay on. Whether Lauer actually had Bush’s back isn’t really clear—one source with knowledge of the interaction told me that Lauer spoke with an executive producer to express support for Bush. But Billy now doubts the sincerity of the effort and says, “That he didn’t fight for me is so deeply hurtful because I’ve known him for absolutely ever.” (Lauer declined to provide comment.)
That Sunday night, Bush says, he knew Trump would win the election in the first few minutes of the second presidential debate. Moderator Anderson Cooper brought up the tape, and Trump responded that Bill Clinton had done worse. The crowd applauded.
BUSH’S TODAY SHOW career lasted roughly 60 days. He learned he was about to be canned when the driver who was supposed to take him to the airport to fly back to New York said, “Sorry, Mr. Bush. They just canceled the car.” He and his wife had recently and relatively amicably separated, and Bush spent months alone in an apartment, drinking too much whiskey and feeling sorry for himself. He wanted to fight NBC, to show the world that he didn’t deserve to pay for something someone else said in front of his 33-year-old self. It has since been widely reported that he received a financial settlement from NBC and that he signed a nondisparagement agreement, though Bush can’t say much to me about that.
Four months into the void, Bush says he told his brother, Jonathan, “I’m paralyzed. I can’t get off my couch. I can’t stop crying. I can’t stop thinking terrible thoughts of what I want to do to myself if I didn’t have children. . . . Help.” He attended the Hoffman Process, a weeklong retreat centered on the idea that all of your patterns are formed in childhood and based on your parents; the theory is that you either repeat their behavior or rebel against it. One of Bush’s therapeutic activities involved going alone to a mountain to have a funeral for himself and imagining what people would say about him; Bush soothed himself by thinking, People know I am not a bad person. His downfall so upset his emotionally withholding father that, Bush says, his dad developed stress-induced shingles. Bush got to see how much his father cared, under the shittiest possible circumstances.
Though Bush kept busy—reading self-help books, spending time with his daughters, conducting a three-year apology tour aimed at anyone who might have been offended—things didn’t really get better until last September, when he came on as anchor and managing editor at Extra. “I think they were very nervous about hiring me, even after all this time,” he says. “I said, ‘Listen, I’ve interacted with people in public so much. I promise there will be zero blowback for hiring me. No one thinks we need to continue punishing Billy Bush.’ ”
Fox gave him a one-year trial. After five weeks, ratings were so good the show got a four-year deal. Bush has plans: a Larry King–style interview show not reliant on celebrity talent, a career of bringing joy through broadcasting like Regis did. But for now, he’s glad to do the grown-up version of his pre-Today job.
“I’m not just some untouched little sheltered, happy-go-lucky, ‘Jeez, everything good happens to this guy’ [person],” Bush says of the upside of public disgrace. “It makes you real.” When he interviews people now, he doesn’t try to provoke a reaction. Instead, a phrase often comes up from his subjects: “You know.” The “you” is delivered in a high, almost apologetic tone, and the “know” drops a full octave, to the depths of the emotional and career nadir it references. “You know” is short for You know what it’s like to have your life fall to shit.
Bush now knows, he says, “that life isn’t fair. Everybody has some kind of fucked-up shit. And if you don’t know that, and if you don’t know how to handle that, process that, get through that, then you haven’t fully gotten to where you need to be. I’m afraid that event”—you know what event—“was important for my development as a broadcaster, as a journalist, as a man, as a person. I needed to have my ass handed to me.”
BUSH APPEARS to have developed a profound and genuine sympathy, albeit one mostly focused on his own experiences. When he was in New York in 2017 to be interviewed about the tape on Good Morning America, Bush magnanimously agreed to have a meal with Matt Lauer. When Bush says he’s less critical now and I request an example, the divorcé says he no longer judges people whose marriages don’t last. When I ask what it’s like to have his public identity subsumed by someone else and mention Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, Bush stands with Lewinsky: “It should have been him who went through the beatdown. Not her. She was a kid.” He will not tolerate any humor about what Trump said on the bus.
He tells a story about being approached by a muscular man in a Whole Foods checkout line. The man laughed, demanding a photo with the “grab ’em by the pussy” guy. Bush said no—it was the worst moment of his life, not some joke—and the man said threateningly that he was going to wait for Bush outside in the parking lot. Bush nervously walked past him with his groceries, checking the reflection in his watch to see if he was being followed. Bush got in his car, where he began pounding on the dashboard. “Yes! Yes!” Bush screams, reenacting the moment by slamming his palms down on the table so hard the cheese board rattles. “Stand up for yourself, dammit!” He says he’s proud of himself and happy with who he is today.
But the progress is fragile. Eleven days after our time in Maine, Bush phones me while eating. I ask him about something his brother told me, a silly workplace story from Bush’s early career, obviously intended by Jonathan to be charming. The question seems to tear a wormhole in Bush’s psyche, transporting him to a place where the world learns about a dumb thing he did forever ago and he loses everything because of it. For half an hour, Bush spirals, confirming the story before catastrophizing about another potential downfall, raising his voice and questioning my judgment, telling me we’re done. The next day, Bush calls again.
“What happened?” I ask. He talks and talks, veering between apologies and attempting to explain what it’s like to live in the liminal space between hiding nothing and utter ruin. “One month before a Trump election and I’m the story again?” he says. “Oh, God. What have I done? I brought it on myself.” It feels like he thinks the more he tells me about himself, the less I’ll say about him. And I do empathize. Bush gained sentience at the same time and in the same way many Americans did: by looking at our own failings—Trump’s election, the need for #MeToo and Black Lives Matter—and realizing our role in them. “The work isn’t done,” he says. “I don’t know if it ever will be. I like to think that that’s the case, but it’s clearly not.”
A few minutes later, we’re laughing. He calls again and again, to talk about NBC—nondisparagingly, of course—and shoot the shit while snacking. “Anna Peele!” Billy Bush says before revealing more of himself, testing his immunity one more time.