In hindsight, I should have noted the significance of the date when Tom Arnold called me to talk about The Hunt for the Trump Tapes with Tom Arnold -- just five days before he'd apparently get into a scuffle with The Apprentice producer Mark Burnett. Tom called on September 11, a day of remembrance and reflection, as well as the day that's sort of a high holiday for conspiracy theorists. And though the call with Arnold would absolutely veer off into tangents naming high-powered media executives and attorneys hiding information about Donald Trump, what sounded like paranoia could in the next moment flip into lucidity and reason that made me wonder if Tom Arnold was a madman, a true American patriot or both. In the aftermath of his messy altercation at a fancy Emmy event, it's clear that even if Arnold is a (self-described) D-list old coot, his work as a Trump-tape truther comes with considerable, real-life risks.
The Hunt for the Trump Tapes probably won't uncover a whole lot; the first episode has a jittery Arnold pouring through audio of Trump's Howard Stern appearances, which Arnold makes the audience understand were hard to get, hard to sift through and is dangerous work because of his ties in Hollywood. "I've had people come to me and say you need to stop, get a crisis P.R. manager, take some time off and get your message together," he said. He told me he'd been sent death threats, mostly from people online, some specific. Yet he's undaunted. "I'm like, 'Are you f--ing kidding me? There's no time off. Are you paying attention?
He has a point.
In the three months since Arnold, who ran in the same circles as Trump in in the past and claims to know about tapes of him saying/doing awful things like using the N-word and allegedly "roughing up" Melania in an elevator, addressed TV critics at TCA, Omarosa released her own tapes. Trump's former fixer Cohen flipped. His National Enquirer fixer flipped. An anonymous White House official published the forward to their Burn Book in the New York Times. Bob Woodward published "Fear." Well-staffed news organizations scramble to keep up with leaks and leads, so I certainly understand if Arnold seems a little scattered. "I'm sorry I don't have it all organized for you," he said. "This is the best I could do under the circumstances." That seems reasonable. His subsequent claim, "Bob Woodward and I today are basically the same guy," sounds stupid. But Tom Arnold's "work," if we want to call it that, taps into a sensitive truth: powerful people in power in trusted institutions, including the media, absolutely do lie, hide crimes and protect their own. If that sounds like tinfoil hat conspiracy theory insanity, please see one of the several thousand stories about the #MeToo movement, or recent revelations about the Catholic church, that dragged these injustices into the sunlight.
Tom Arnold knows he's not a part of the media establishment, or even polished. The Hunt for the Trump Tapes with Tom Arnold is partly dead serious, part whimsical and part cartoonish man-child rants. He goes from looking like a real-deal journalist-activist, asking other The Apprentice stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Penn Jillette about footage of Trump sexually harassing women or insulting minorities on set, to meeting with influencers like DeRay Mckesson of Black Lives Matter to break down the implications of what's heard. Arnold often comes off as the hero in an grating movie about a retired party boy who goes back to college at age 59 to get his final filmmaking credit, but he at least seems authentically himself. "I'm crazy," he said a few times during our interview. But, "This guy's a maniac. I need to stay on it."
Here's the rub though: it's 2018. Trump supporter or no, everyone who consumes news and information now filters it through the lens of: Who said it? Why did they say it at this time? What did they have to gain by saying it? In the same way that his scuffle at an Emmy party could either be infantile nonsense or, possibly, some sort of warped heroism, you don't really know what to believe. And anyway, whatever he finds feels like it'll be moot, right? Hearing Donald Trump say the N-word will shock no one. "Grab em by the pussy" impacted his presidential race not one iota. What then, I asked Tom Arnold, could you possibly hope to achieve even if you did find footage of Trump doing piss play with hookers in Vegas as you claim exists?
I wish I could answer this sensibly, but for the most of the rest of our interview I felt like the string in a Detective Tom Arnold Crazy Wall, as Arnold made darting connections between high-powered media people including Mark Burnett, David Pecker, Michael Cohen, Hollywood attorney Marty Singer and others. Sensible editing and narrative considerations make Arnold much easier to follow in The Hunt for the Trump Tapes with Tom Arnold than one-on-one, where his tangents sound unhinged.
But then he mentions something about brave women coming forward to share information we haven't heard on his show, and it suddenly clicks for me. When a person comes forward to report abuse or harassment by a man in power, it doesn't matter if she's the 12th person or the 59th. It doesn't matter if she's a doctor or a porn star. Every testimonial matters. And while Tom Arnold is hardly as inspirational as say, the quintessentially 2018-ish hero Stormy Daniels, their underlying desire to expose wrongdoing — even if no one cares, even if nothing happens — is the same, and that is not without merit. Trying to discredit The Hunt for the Trump Tapes with Tom Arnold by saying it blurs the line between real journalism and entertainment is to pretend those lines haven't already been irrevocably smudged. The Hunt for the Trump Tapes makes him look unstable but it also makes him look furious at being lied to and bullshitted by people with money and power, a frustration which almost everyone can relate. "People are more and more concerned," he said, referencing separation of families at the border as an example of Trump's racism and recklessness that portend a possibly bigger, more catastrophic screw-up on his watch. "I wouldn't want to be someone holding out on my country that could have done something and didn't."
Yes, some will say The Hunt for the Trump Tapes with Tom Arnold will look like a traitorous friend's opportunist ploy to remain relevant and well, that's not wrong. But singers sing, painters paint and Tom Arnold makes TV shows. If he is to be believed--and nothing about what he claims exists seems far-fetched--then there is something noble about his attempt to save the nation, even if the means are pedestrian and the messenger, uh, eccentric. "As an American, a guy that used to work in a meatpacking plant, I'm going to keep doing what I can until Donald Trump flips and if I have to go back to Washington D.C. and stand outside the White House [I will]--because it is that important," Arnold said, sounding lucid, focused and patriotic before darting off to say something about a tweet that prompted a cease and desist from a Trump lawyer, and asking Roseanne, through a friend, if she'll at least condemn Trump's border separations.
"I'm super crazy, by the way," Arnold states. But honestly, who could read the news and not be?
The Hunt for the Trump Tapes with Tom Arnold premieres Tuesday Sept. 18 at 10:30/9:30 c on Viceland.