Billy Bush was on the tarmac at New York’s JFK International Airport waiting to take off for Los Angeles when his world imploded. It was Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, and an 11-year-old tape of a lewd conversation with Donald Trump — in which the then-Apprentice star could be heard bragging about sexually assaulting women with a chortling Bush egging him on — was leaked to The Washington Post. The tape was supposed to end Trump’s improbable presidential run. Instead, it torpedoed Bush’s job at NBC’s Today, turning the former Access Hollywood host into a late-night punch line and media pariah. “I could not put two thoughts together,” Bush, 45, tells The Hollywood Reporter in an extended interview, his first since the scandal erupted more than seven months ago. “Things were happening way too fast.”
Captive on that airplane for nearly six Wi-Fi-enabled hours, Bush read news reports in disbelief as a real-time train wreck engulfed his career. By the time he arrived in Los Angeles, a horde of paparazzi had materialized at LAX and, later, at his L.A. home, where they remained for more than a week. Ducking out only through a back path, Bush spent the remainder of that October weekend desperately trying to save his job, then just a few months old and already off to a shaky start after a much-criticized interview with embattled Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte. Though Today long had been among Bush’s ambitions, his hiring as the co-host of the 9 a.m. hour was somewhat controversial given his lack of hard-news experience and a snarky red-carpet presence. Initially, NBC News signaled Bush would return that Monday to apologize on-air. “I would have welcomed addressing the audience,” he says pointedly.
That opportunity never came. Though Bush issued an apology statement, and Trump dismissed his own remarks about grabbing women “by the pussy” as merely “locker-room banter,” many enraged viewers vowed never to watch Today again. That rancor could be felt internally, too, with several NBC News staffers, many of them women, incredulous that Bush would be allowed to return so soon — or at all. By Monday, Bush was suspended. Seven days later, on Oct. 17, he was out with a multimillion-dollar severance package and a nondisclosure agreement that prevents him from going into detail about his exit from NBC News. He still has no idea who leaked the tape.
Where has Bush been since then? Engaged in a lot of soul searching, a process that included time walking on fiery coals with spiritual guru Tony Robbins and a stint at a Napa Valley healing retreat. He took up yoga and meditation, developed a boxing routine and read books like 10% Happier, written by ABC News anchor and buddy Dan Harris. Bush, the nephew of President George H.W. Bush, also spent more time than he had in years with his family, including daughters Lillie, 12, Mary, 16, and Josie, 18. “It was fun to have his undivided attention,” says his older brother, Jonathan. “There was no rushing off to do this or that.” He’s also stayed in contact with his former Today colleagues; he recently saw Hoda Kotb and her baby and was invited to lunch with Matt Lauer.
What Bush refrained from doing is watching the infamous three-minute tape from 2005. While he long has been aware of its existence and says “plenty of people” at NBC knew about it, too, he claims he has seen it only three times: once, three days before the rest of the world did, and then twice more in preparation for this interview. Each time it left him “totally and completely gutted,” he says, his voice shaky and eyes watery. “Looking back upon what was said on that bus, I wish I had changed the topic. [Trump] liked TV and competition. I could’ve said, ‘Can you believe the ratings on whatever?’ But I didn’t have the strength of character to do it.”
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