You might have lost track of it in all the sound and fury surrounding the Republican tax heist—or decided it mattered less than the President’s recent decision to support alleged 14-year-old-assaulter Roy Moore—but last Sunday, news broke that Donald Trump has been telling people the infamous Access Hollywood tape in which he boasts about women letting him “grab them by the pussy” was a fake. This is not only an obvious lie, it’s a lie that contradicts the apology Trump offered when the story originally broke in 2016. But like the old saying goes, it takes two people to brag about sexual assault and then go on to become the President of the United States: one to brag about sexual assault and go on to become President of the United States, and one to chuckle along and get fired. That second person, Billy Bush, was in a direct position to confirm that Trump was, once again, lying, and did so, writing a New York Times editorial headlined, “Yes, Donald Trump, You Said That.” On Monday night, Bush stopped by The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to confirm that Americans could believe their own eyes and ears: Donald Trump really did boast about sexually assaulting women back in 2005.
Bush’s appearance, like his editorial, was at least partly a plea for forgiveness—he went out of his way to talk about all the work he’s done since the Access Hollywood tape got him fired from the Today Show, and it’s clear that he feels that he was ill-treated in the immediate aftermath of the tape being leaked. This is certainly true in comparison with Donald Trump—at press time, still President of the United States—and it’s hard to argue with Bush’s indignation that Trump has been floating the idea that the tape is fake:
By the way, I would also like to say that’s not me on the bus. You don’t get to say that! Because I was there, and the last 14 months of my life, I have been dealing with it. You dealt with it for 14 minutes and went on to be the president.
This appearance is a step forward from Bush’s unconvincing attempt at a comeback last May. For one thing, he’s finally gotten around to reading about the allegations of sexual assault against the president. But as Colbert points out, the only reason Bush is getting this opportunity to come forward again is Donald Trump’s own stupidity, not some hunger on the part of the American public for Billy Bush’s houghts on the matter:
It’s a well-written editorial, and you make a lot of points in here, which, it’s really worth reading. But you couldn’t have printed this—no one would have printed this—unless this story had come back around again by Donald Trump privately denying it. There wouldn’t have been, the, sort of, the moment to bring this bus back. And I couldn’t show this footage of the bus unless he had denied it again, too. I don’t think CBS would let me. … [Trump] actually brought this particular subject around in conjunction with sort of the cultural moment we’re in right now, where revelations of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual impropriety are putting a new spotlight on the accusations against the president. He stuck—I’m gonna say his finger—in this door hinge by denying this. It’s really the dumbest thing he could have done. He’s a dumb, dumb person.
Bush maybe should have taken the hint that Colbert hadn’t invited him on to reinvent himself. He didn’t. When Bush said that Trump’s monologue initially struck him as shock humor in the vein of Andrew Dice Clay, Colbert pushed back, first asking, “But the camera wasn’t on; why did it seem like a performance to you?” and eventually going on to ask, “Why were you on the bus with him to begin with again?” Colbert finally had to explicitly prompt his guest to discuss the Access Hollywood bus in moral terms:
You state in here—I don’t know exactly the phrases used--you feel shame when you think of your behavior being associated with Donald Trump. That you gave up some part of yourself to a man that you didn’t respect.
Bush picked this up and seemed genuinely contrite for a moment, but almost immediately pivoted to outlining grandiose plans for elevating the conversation—i.e., elevating it away from specific things Billy Bush did or said—and eventually offered this jaw-dropping complaint that undid any good his earlier focus on Trump’s alleged victims might have done his public image:
Stephen, it’s an unbelievable irony. The very day that [Trump] was swearing in as the 45th President of the United States, I was checking in to this soul-searching retreat in St. Helena, California. It’s nine days off the grid, no phone, you had to check in your phone, and you just kind of—it was the beginning of me saying, “All right, get up, stop being sorry for yourself, stop worrying, all these things, there’s life to live, let’s go: Get better. Be a better man, be a better person.” So I passed the television in the office when I was checking in, and there’s the—he’s got his hand up, and I’m going in to my little cabin to do the work!
“Tough,” Bush added, looking at Colbert for some kind of sympathetic reaction, which for some reason—probably having to do with the fact that Bush, after making the appropriate noises of support for Trump’s accusers, was complaining about having to go to a luxury resort in Napa because of his own complicity—wasn’t forthcoming. But he still didn’t get that this wasn’t an entirely friendly interview, because he followed up by positively leaping into this not-particularly-difficult trap Colbert set:
You had just been recently one of the co-hosts of The Today Show. Matt Lauer controlled that show. He could have protected anybody, and he did famously protect people from being fired on that show. Do you wish he would have protected you?
To state the obvious, this was an opportunity for Bush to condemn the horrible things Matt Lauer is accused of doing, not to reveal that he tried to get Matt Lauer to pull strings on his behalf. Instead Bush cheerfully walked right into the buzzsaw:
We had a conversation about that, and I was told—he told me—that he went privately to the bosses and took that line, and I said I appreciated it, and I accepted him and thanked him.
At that point, it was kind of redundant for Bush to close out with a story about surviving being hit in the head by a golf club that ended with the Rodney-Dangerfieldesque line, “I’m finally lucky,” as though he were the biggest victim of Trump’s alleged predation. Billy Bush seems to have the idea that his redemption will come from being part of the conversation about sexually inappropriate behavior in the workplace. He gives no indication that he’s reckoned with the fact that he already made an important contribution to that conversation, on a bus, with Donald Trump, in 2005.