More than a decade ago, Donald Trump stood on the stage of Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Center to host the April 3, 2004, episode of Saturday Night Live. The real estate mogul was nearing the end of his impressively-rated first season as host of The Apprentice on NBC, and this was his victory lap.
“It’s great to be here at Saturday Night Live. But I’ll be completely honest, it’s better for Saturday Night Live that I’m here,” he said at the top of his monologue, sounding much like the Trump we see on the campaign trail today. “Nobody’s bigger than me, nobody’s better than me. I’m a ratings machine!” Soon, he was joined by SNL’s then-resident Trump, Darrell Hammond, and Jimmy Fallon as Jeff Zucker, NBC president at the time.
But while the Trump who hosted SNL that night may be familiar to those watching him dominate the news 11 years later, his relationship with NBC—and, for that matter, the general public—could not be more different.
Trump’s surprisingly successful presidential campaign was barely a month old before NBC announced that it was effectively firing him as host of The Celebrity Apprentice, his spin-off from the earlier show, which was forced to add similarly boisterous personalities like Piers Morgan and Joan Rivers once the original reality show’s ratings began to decline precipitously.
NBC attributed the decision, which also included giving up the broadcast rights to the Trump-owned Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, to the candidate’s “derogatory” comments about Mexican immigrants during his campaign announcement speech. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing their problems,” he infamously proclaimed. “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people.”
The notoriously litigious Trump, as is his wont, threatened to sue NBC, and subsequently did file a $500 million lawsuit against Univision for dropping the pageants.
Relations between Trump and NBC have remained icy over the past several months, with current network president Bob Greenblatt assuring reporters that the candidate will “absolutely not” be returning to the network as host of The Celebrity Apprentice. (That honor will go to another larger-than-life star-turned-politician: Arnold Schwarzenegger).
But apparently NBC’s Trump boycott does not extend to Saturday Night Live, where Trump will try to one-up Hillary Clinton’s season premiere cameo this coming weekend by serving as host and possibly even portraying a number of characters not named Donald Trump. Really, who doesn’t want to see his Jeb Bush impression?
Almost immediately after the SNL announcement was made, Trump’s loudest critics began to denounce NBC’s decision to welcome the candidate back into its entertainment fold.
Last month, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda sent a letter to NBC that read, in part, “Donald Trump has yet to apologize for his bigoted comments about Mexican immigrants. Allowing Trump to host SNL will legitimate and validate his anti-Latino comments… We are appalled that you would enable Trump’s hateful speech for nothing less than a ratings ploy and ask that you rescind the SNL invitation.”
Next, the California Latino Legislative Caucus wrote to the network, “‘Saturday Night Live’ may be a comedy show, but inviting a host [who] believes the largest ethnic group in the country consists of rapists and criminals with ‘lots of problems’ is not only wrong, but it makes NBCUniversal complicit in demeaning an entire community.”
The outrage even made it to the House floor, where Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) called out SNL captain Lorne Michaels by name, wondering aloud “if things might have been different if Donald Trump was calling all Canadians rapists, murderers and drug dealers.”
And finally, on Monday, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus weighed in with an official resolution. “Be it resolved that the Congressional Hispanic Caucus calls upon NBCUniversal, Broadway Video, and SNL Executive Producer Lorne Michaels to disinvite Mr. Trump from hosting Saturday Night Live because racism is not funny,” the statement reads. “And be it further resolved, that the Congressional Hispanic Caucus urges NBCUniversal to stand by its earlier commitment to end its relationship with Mr. Trump because the values of ‘respect and dignity for all people’ are more important than ratings and ad revenues.”
Of course, all of this—in addition to planned protests by various Hispanic groups on Saturday night—are highly unlikely to change NBC’s mind. The network already saw Trump’s high-profile appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon give that show its best ratings in over 18 months earlier this year. They simply can’t resist the inevitable ratings spike that Trump will deliver this weekend, and as he made clear 11 years ago, Trump knows this better than anyone.
“It’s called ratings,” Trump said over the weekend. “I go on Jimmy Fallon, he got his best ratings. One of the best nights he’s had in years. Then I did Colbert’s show. That got fantastic ratings. He beat Fallon by a lot. Since then, NBC and I get along great.”
And that was after Trump—and the rest of the GOP field—spent most of the week hammering CNBC for what they viewed as a biased debate in Boulder, Colorado:
And now Trump is joining his fellow Republican candidates in support of the RNC’s decision to cancel NBC News’ upcoming GOP debate, which was to be co-sponsored by Spanish-language channel Telemundo in February. According to The Washington Post, when Jeb Bush’s campaign manager attempted to salvage the Telemundo debate during a private meeting on Monday, Trump spokesperson Corey Lewandowski shot back, “If you do that, Trump walks.”
Even when he was ostensibly still in NBC’s good graces, Trump would occasionally lash out at his employer, as seen in a particularly nasty Twitter rant against “sleepy eyes” Chuck Todd back in January. Trump pitched himself as a possible replacement host on that long-running NBC News program, but for some reason they didn’t take him up on that offer.
In the end, Trump knows he can trash NBC all he wants and Saturday Night Live will not hesitate to give him 90 minutes of airtime this week to demonstrate just how big of a “ratings machine” he really is.
Curiously, Trump’s hosting gig could even prompt other candidates to demand their own opportunities to grace the 30 Rock stage under the FCC’s so-called equal time rule. After Clinton made her cameo on SNL last month, her onetime Democratic rival Lawrence Lessig called on NBC to give him comparable free airtime on the show. “We’re not trying to get Larry onto Saturday Night Live, of course,” Lessig’s lawyer admitted, “we just want to protect his equal right to speak to viewers.”
Since Saturday Night Live does not fall strictly under the exempt categories of “newscast, interview, documentary or a live news event,” will Lindsey Graham soon argue that he deserves to scream “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” into NBC’s cameras as well?
Trump critics can take solace in one fact: Trump is surprisingly willing to let comedians make fun of him to his face—as long as he’s in on the joke (see: Seth Meyers). This was evident during the Fallon sketch as well as his first SNL hosting gig. So while Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton may have been awfully nice to the Democratic frontrunner in person, don’t expect Taran Killam’s Trump to do the same.
For now, the network is keeping quiet on the controversy. The Daily Beast contacted an NBC spokesperson who replied, “Thank you for reaching out, but we are not commenting at this time.”