Brow Beat

Stephen Colbert Asks Omarosa Manigault to Explain Her Time in the Trump White House

Omarosa Manigault, who served as President Trump’s director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison before flaming out in December, gave a revealing interview to Stephen Colbert on Wednesday night. It wasn’t revealing in the sense that it told us anything we didn’t already know about the president, nor was it revealing in the sense that it told us anything about Manigault that can’t be deduced from the fact that she worked for President Trump. But it was a fascinating look at the way late night television has changed in recent years, as much for guests as for viewers. Manigault came to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2018 with a bag of techniques to defuse host and studio audience alike that would have worked perfectly, if she’d been appearing on Late Night With David Letterman in 1987. That’s the era of late night David Foster Wallace wrote about in his short story “My Appearance,” in which two men give the female narrator the following advice about coming off well in a Letterman interview:

Make sure you’re seen as making fun of yourself, but in a self-aware and ironic way. … In other words, appear the way Letterman appears, on Letterman. … Laugh in a way that’s somehow deadpan. Act as if you knew from birth that everything is clichéd and hyped and empty and absurd, and that that’s just where the fun is.

“My Appearance” dramatized an actual interview on Letterman in which actress Susan St. James preemptively out-scoffed the host, making it clear that she was in on any jokes he might care to make about her career, her age, or the Oreo cookie ads she’d been making. And while the short story is concerned with the hall-of-mirrors aspect of public personae—the narrator takes offense at her husband’s insistence on approaching the Letterman interview with strategy—in the actual event, Letterman genuinely didn’t know what to do with statements like this one, in which St. James claimed she was making Oreo commercials as a lark, then spoke frankly about her career peaking:

Actually, I didn’t get paid, I just said I’ll just do it just for the fun, you know. Here’s why I did it. I said, “I think probably the biggest part of my career’s going to be in television.” I don’t know, three television series, I said, “I think television’s where I’ll be.” I don’t see a big feature career at 45, coming out of the blue, you know. 

Omarosa’s affect on The Late Show is a distant ancestor of St. James’: preemptively self-deprecating, ready with a laugh and a smile, and completely impervious to criticism. But these days, that approach would barely work for an Oreo spokesperson, to say nothing of a former White House official. Which is what Omarosa Manigault will be from now on, regardless of whether or not she’d prefer to be treated like a TV star. Look at the way the categories slip after Colbert shows a clip of Omarosa on Celebrity Big Brother telling Ross Mathews that Donald Trump’s presidency “is going to not be okay.” Omarosa acts like an embarrassed actress viewing dailies while Colbert tries and fails to get her to grasp the seriousness of the situation, resulting in this grim little Pinter play:

Omarosa Manigault: This is my first time seeing it! Wow, that’s …

Stephen Colbert: That’s the first time you’re seeing it?

OM: Yes.

SC: I’ve watched it many times.

OM: Have you? [Laughs.]]

SC: I see it with my eyes closed, and it haunts me. It haunts me at night.

OM: The best part about being in the house was there was no Twitter for 30 days, and that was the first time that I had been away from Twitter since I joined the campaign in 2015. So it was actually a great reprieve.

SC: Okay. So, “It’s not going to be okay. It’s not.” What do you mean by that?

OM: [Laughs.]

SC: And was that a joke? Because you’re laughing about it. But he’s chilled, and I’m chilled by watching it. Because you know Donald Trump, you were in the White House, you were close to the events that were happening. What do you mean it’s not going to be okay?

OM: I’m glad you ask, because that was part of a bigger discussion where we were talking about immigration and roundups. Particularly we were talking about a family of a man who had been in the country for thirty years and had been sent back. And Ross was expressing his concern over what was happening with immigration. So that was a part of a bigger discussion. And I believe that the immigration debate will continue. And it’s a very difficult and complicated subject. And I don’t believe that it can be revolved so simply, and that was a part of the discussion. And that’s why it was a bit emotional, because what’s happening with Haitians, El Salvador, what’s happening with a lot of the immigrants who are being put out of this country without giving them the consideration that this nation is a nation of immigrants. And that we should have compassion, particularly with DREAMers. And so that was, that came from a bigger discussion. And I am concerned—

SC: So when you say, “Don’t think that everything’s going to be okay, it’s not going to be okay…”

OM: It’s not.

SC: You mean that it’s not going to be okay for the DACA kids, it’s not going to be okay for immigrants, or you mean…

OM: We have an opportunity.

SC: But the rest of us are going to be—you didn’t mean anything?

OM: Stephen, we have an opportunity to make it okay. We have an opportunity to make it okay. And I don’t want fifteen seconds on a reality show to encapsulate such a serious topic.

SC: Well, I’ll ask you again. Is everything going to be okay under Donald Trump?

OM: We’ll have to wait and see.

Omarosa delivers the last line like she’s being coy about an upcoming plot twist in a prestige drama, then pauses, seemingly for approval. The audience straight-up boos. As for the Patrick Bateman monologue in the middle about being a nation of immigrants, Ross Mathews promptly contested her description of their conversation:

I sure hope playing fast and loose with about the subject of her conversation doesn’t mean Manigault was less than sincere about her commitment to making things okay! The whole interview is like that: Again and again, Manigault invites Colbert and the audience to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, to join her in not caring. She peppers that with invitations to join her in caring very much and very earnestly about situations she and her former boss either created, exploited, or made worse. And somewhere in there is the invitation to care about Omarosa Manigault, back from another wacky adventure and funnier than ever. Send our regrets.

Matthew Dessem is Brow Beat’s nights and weekends editor and the author of a biography of screenwriter and director Clyde Bruckman.