The Slatest

NBC Is Giving Donald Trump, Who Refused to Debate Joe Biden This Week, a TV Special Instead

A smiling Jimmy Fallon musses Trump's hair with his hand.
Donald Trump on NBC’s Tonight Show in September 2016. NBC

NBC’s motto or catchphrase or whatever is “The More You Know.” But ironically, certain people at the network seem like they never learn anything!

After Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the town hall event that he and Joe Biden were scheduled to participate in on Thursday (i.e., Oct. 15) would be held virtually. Trump may have been spreading the virus at the first presidential debate, held on Sept. 29 in Cleveland; two days earlier, he had attended the now-infamous “superspreader” White House event for Amy Coney Barrett, and he has still not disclosed whether he took a coronavirus test at any point between the Barrett event and the debate despite the debate’s requirement, unfortunately enforced only by the “honor system,” that participants make sure they tested negative. A virtual town hall seemed like the appropriate way to strike a balance between the public’s interest in seeing presidential candidates answer questions and the public’s interest in not being infected with a potentially fatal virus by one of those candidates.

Trump, however, said he would not participate in a virtual debate; his campaign’s statement on the matter explained that this was because Biden would be able to cheat during such an event by “relying on his teleprompter from his basement bunker.” (The Facebook conspiracy idea that Biden is told via teleprompter how to answer questions posed at live events is one of the Trump campaign’s core arguments against his candidacy, which may help explain why Trump is trailing him by more than 10 points in national polls.)

With Trump having dropped out, Biden—who, again, had been willing to participate in the scheduled presidential debate organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates—arranged with ABC to have a live solo town hall on Thursday night. On Wednesday, NBC announced, incredibly, that the Today Show’s Savannah Guthrie will host Trump for an in-person town hall at the same time.

Regarding the contagiousness question, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines say COVID-19 patients “with severe illness” may need to isolate for “up to 20 days” after the onset of their symptoms. Trump was hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms on Oct. 2, and he was treated with a set of drugs usually reserved for serious cases. Anthony Fauci is, however, on the record attesting that the results of Trump’s latest tests show “with a high degree of confidence that he is not transmissible.” And folks, you know you’ve really struck gold when the best case for doing something is a beleaguered expert allowing that he’s mostly confident it won’t be literally dangerous.

During the 2016 cycle, NBC invited Trump to host Saturday Night Live; he appeared frequently by phone on MSNBC’s Morning Joe political talk program and, as you can see above, got his hair affectionately mussed up by Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show in September 2016. Throughout the campaign (and after), the producers and executives who worked with Trump on NBC’s Apprentice stayed quiet about his reportedly crude behind-the-scenes behavior. The network also possessed, but did not publish, the Access Hollywood “pussy” audio. (The Washington Post published it instead.) Jeff Zucker—the ex–NBC executive responsible for the existence of The Apprentice and thereby the revival of Trump’s fame and personal finances—was, in 2016, the president of CNN, which chose to run wall-to-wall live coverage of Trump’s rallies, giving his racist novelty campaign the hours and hours of free media it needed. Now NBC is, once again, rewarding Trump for discarding useful political norms (debate your opponent; don’t be racist) because it will be good for their ratings. What could go wrong?