At Wednesday night’s final presidential debate, Hillary Clinton drew a strong contrast between her history of public service and Donald Trump’s history of racial discrimination lawsuits and beauty pageant feuds. For the most part, she was vague about the timing, but one of her comparisons was very precise: “On the day when I was in the situation room monitoring the raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice, he was hosting The Celebrity Apprentice.”
It was a strong moment for the Democratic nominee: All Americans have indelible memories of the day in 2011 the United States finally defeated Osama bin Laden, to say nothing of the day John Rich finally defeated Marlee Matlin on the fourth season of The Celebrity Apprentice. But does Clinton’s timeline add up? Thanks to the incredible reporting of Vulture’s Tom Scharpling and James Oliphant of the Los Angeles Times, we’ve managed to reconstruct the precise sequence of events that fateful day in May when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton made history:
April 29, 6:05 a.m. EDT: The first clues of the world-historical events coming on May 1 arrive via Twitter, when Donald Trump abandons his strong preference for the element of surprise and announces his plans:
April 29, 8:20 a.m. EDT: President Barack Obama has been making plans of his own. Following years of preparation, Obama gives the final go-ahead to launch a raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.
May 1, 3 p.m.: Hillary Clinton meets in the situation room with President Obama to monitor the Abbottabad raid.
May 1, 3:30 p.m. (approx.): Navy SEALs descend on bin Laden’s compound. Clinton, in the situation room with the president, monitors the raid. Trump’s precise whereabouts are unknown.
May 1, 7 p.m. (approx.): President Obama is informed that bin Laden has almost certainly been killed. With two hours to go before The Celebrity Apprentice begins, it is extremely unlikely that Clinton is still in the situation room. Where is she?
May 1, 9 p.m.: The ninth episode of the fourth season of The Celebrity Apprentice, “Shear Madness,” begins. The sponsor is Farouk Systems hair products: Contestants are asked to plan a hair show to show off their product line.
May 1, 9:05 p.m. (approx.): Lil Jon defeats Meat Loaf in a rock, paper, scissors match, becoming project manager for Team Backbone.
May 1, 9:10 p.m. (approx.): Shortly after being chosen as the project manager for Team A.S.A.P., NeNe Jones launches a tirade against team member Star Jones, telling her, “I will take you down,” and, in an eerie portent of the accusations about Trump and Putin, accuses team member Hope Dworaczyk of being Jones’ puppet:
May 1, 9:15 p.m. (approx.): Under Lil Jon’s leadership, the members of Team Backbone decide to invite Niki Taylor to model Farouk hair products for them. Taylor, a contestant on the show that season, had been fired on March 20 (Episode 3, “Happy Campers”), and Team Backbone feels the presence of a ghost from its past will rattle its opponent. The idea comes from John Rich, who will go on to be named the Celebrity Apprentice.
May 1, 9:20 p.m. (approx.): Donald Trump meets with La Toya Jackson to discuss her April 24 firing (in Episode 8, “Bitter Suites”). Jackson believes she was unfairly blamed for her team’s failure; Trump, faced with a tough decision, says he will consider rehiring her.
May 1, 9:30 p.m.: Obama calls congressional leaders John Boehner and Harry Reid to inform them bin Laden has been killed. Meanwhile, Team Backbone’s strategy has worked: Team A.S.A.P. is, indeed, thrown off its game by Niki Taylor’s return. Trump observes this turn of events and takes notes for the 2016 presidential debates.
May 1, 9:45 p.m.: Obama announces that he will address the nation later that evening. NBC chooses to put this news on a crawl at a crucial moment in Trump’s boardroom meeting with representatives from Team Backbone and Team A.S.A.P. about their Farouk Systems presentations. Barely 24 hours after roasting Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama has invaded the sanctity of his boardroom.
May 1, 9:50 p.m. (approx.): Donald Trump announces that Team Backbone has won the week’s competition, and, in a shocking move, that La Toya Jackson will be rehired to serve on the team. But just as he begins discussing Team A.S.A.P.’s failure to successfully promote hair care products, NBC news pre-empts his show to announce the death of bin Laden.
East Coast viewers do not discover that Trump has made the crucial decision to fire Hope Dworaczyk until much later that night.
May 1, 11:35 p.m.: President Obama addresses the nation, confirming that bin Laden is dead. In a final humiliation for Trump, the president does not mention the firing of Hope Dworaczyk.
May 3, 7:25 a.m.: After the weekend’s monumental events, Trump breaks his public silence:
Hillary Clinton’s vote in this O’Reilly Factor poll remains unknown.
So does Clinton’s account of Trump’s actions in 2011 make sense? More or less; an episode of The Celebrity Apprentice did air the day of the raid that killed bin Laden. But there are several crucial holes in the timeline. For one thing, Clinton’s actions are unaccounted for between the critical hours of 9 and 10 p.m. Was she monitoring the aftermath of the bin Laden raid, or was she ignoring the duties of her office, merrily declining urgent phone calls in order to watch The Celebrity Apprentice? And our investigation uncovered an even more important fact deliberately left out of Clinton’s analysis:The Celebrity Apprentice was not a live show. So while Donald Trump appeared to be meeting in the boardroom that fateful night, this was nothing but a ruse: He could have been anywhere. Including Abbottabad.
Update: Jezebel has partly answered our question. Trump was doing birther stuff on CNN when news of the raid broke:
Still, many questions remain. Where was Trump calling from? Why was the reception so bad? And why did he hang up so abruptly? An uncharacteristic outburst of temper from the man who had just coolly made the bold decision to rehire La Toya Jackson? Or could it have been a mandate from the flight crew of a V-22 Osprey, taking off to transport bin Laden’s body to the USS Carl Vinson for burial at sea? The truth is lost to the ages; all we can do is study the timeline and make educated guesses.