Donald Trump was a frequent guest on David Letterman's Late Show in the years before his current presidential campaign. But Letterman stepped down from his position as host of the CBS late-night show before the real estate mogul announced his Republican bid for president. In the early days of Trump's campaign, when the candidate's outlandish comments were still seen by many as a source of amusement, Letterman jokingly lamented retiring before he was able to partake in the late-night comedy gift of Trump's run.
But now that Trump is the Republican nominee for president, Letterman no longer finds him funny, calling his behavior that of a "damaged human being" and saying his reluctance to apologize for seemingly offensive comments and acts makes him "a person to be shunned."
"I’ve known Donald Trump for a long time and I always thought he was exactly what New York City needed to have: the big, blowhard billionaire. 'By God, I’m Donald Trump and I date models and I put up buildings, and everything is gold.' Nobody took him seriously, and people loved him when he would come on the show. I would make fun of his hair, I would call him a slumlord, I would make fun of his ties. And he could just take a punch like nothing. He was the perfect guest," Letterman tells the New York Times in an interview tied to his involvement in the National Geographic series Years of Living Dangerously.
But now, Letterman says, he's been disturbed by how Trump has continued to offend without anyone stopping him. Letterman indicates he was particularly turned off when Trump appeared to mock a reporter with a disability.
"Right out of the box, he goes after immigrants and how they’re drug dealers and they’re rapists. And everybody swallows hard. And they think, oh, well, somebody’ll take him aside and say, 'Don, don’t do that.' But it didn’t happen," Letterman continues. "And then, I can remember him doing an impression, behind a podium, of a reporter for The New York Times who has a congenital disorder. And then I thought, if this was somebody else — if this was a member of your family or a next-door neighbor, a guy at work — you would immediately distance yourself from that person. And that’s what I thought would happen. Because if you can do that in a national forum, that says to me that you are a damaged human being. If you can do that and not apologize, you’re a person to be shunned."
Letterman thinks Trump will still "be crushed in the general election," citing and supporting a prediction made by The Times' David Brooks.
Letterman also seems to call for people to stop giving attention to Trump, referring to Ruth Bader Ginsburg's brief dispute with the candidate. "Kids, if you turn off the light, the moths will stop coming," Letterman says.
The former Late Show host adds that if he still had a talk show and Trump agreed to appear as a guest, "I would have gone right after him."
"I would have said something like, 'Hey, nice to see you. Now, let me ask you: What gives you the right to make fun of a human who is less fortunate, physically, than you are?' And maybe that’s where it would have ended," Letterman said. "Because I don’t know anything about politics. I don’t know anything about trade agreements. I don’t know anything about China devaluing the yuan. But if you see somebody who’s not behaving like any other human you’ve known, that means something. They need an appointment with a psychiatrist. They need a diagnosis and they need a prescription."
It's worth pointing out, though, that while Jimmy Fallon was criticized for going easy on Trump in the candidate's recent appearance on Fallon's Tonight Show, Trump has seemed to avoid programs hosted by comedians who have been more critical, like Seth Meyers' Late Night and Stephen Colbert's Late Show, with the candidate just making one appearance on Colbert last year. So perhaps Trump wouldn't have given Letterman the chance to go after him.
Still, while Letterman's off late night, his show has been a part of the current presidential campaign, with Hillary Clinton's team using a 2012 appearance by Trump on Letterman's Late Show in a campaign ad.
On that, Letterman said, laughing, "It made me a wealthy man." He then added, seriously, "I was flattered. I was pleased. I felt like I still have a small voice in this. I thought it was good."