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Top 10 Political Moments on TV of 2016

Variety logo Variety 12/20/2016 Ted Johnson

Just about everything on TV was political in 2016. The lines of politicians and celebrity blurred beyond recognition, where serious policy debate gave way to the short spectacle.

Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency blew the lid off of any accepted wisdom of what works in politics, but he was attuned to the new rules in an era of balkanized mass entertainment. It’s getting attention that matters.

With that in mind, we break down the biggest political moments on TV of the year — and there were plenty.

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10. Trump steaks press conference. After winning a series of primaries on March 8, Donald Trump summoned reporters to a press conference at his Jupiter, Fla., property, where guests were greeted by an array of Trump-branded products. There were Trump steaks, Trump wines, and Trump water. He even held up a copy of his magazine. It didn’t seem to make a difference that some of the product lines had been discontinued. This was Trump’s way of promoting his brand. He also said it was his way of responding to an attack from Mitt Romney, who called him a “fraud” in a speech earlier in the month. The press conference drew plenty of media snark — but it also was a prelude to serious questions raised after his win of what he would do with business ventures that posed a conflict of interest.

9. Size king. At a March 3 debate, Trump couldn’t resist addressing one of Marco Rubio’s attack lines.  “Look at those hands — are they small hands?” he said, after Rubio mocked him for the size of his digits. “And he referred to my hands. ‘If they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.” There was no mistaking what Trump was referring to, and anyone covering the debate didn’t have to even go to their history books to determine that Trump had achieved a first for such an event. No other candidate before had referred to his penis size in a debate — and let’s hope none do in the future.

8. Michelle Obama at the DNC. “When they go low, we go high.” The first lady gave the best received speech at the Democratic National Convention, which was a well-produced week of speakers, Hollywood stars, and dramatic moments, including those from the father of a Muslim soldier killed in the line of duty, Khizr Khan. Trump’s stunning victory will otherwise mask the fact that Hillary Clinton got a big bounce from the DNC, only to dissipate later in the summer. The first lady’s words were echoed later in the campaign, and, even though Clinton lost, will be remembered in campaigns to come. Obama is said to have little appetite for running for office herself, and that may be all the better. Given the partisan split in the country, more people may listen.

7. CNN’s panel: Jeffrey Lord vs. Van Jones. CNN’s infamous panels pitted Trump detractors against Trump supporters, pontificating on the state of the race ad nauseam. But occasionally, the endless talk would yield moments of compelling debate, as when Trump backer Lord and progressive Jones clashed on March 1 over the role of bigotry in propelling Trump’s rise. CNN wisely let their exchange run long — and it instantly drew social media attention. Unnerving as the exchange was, it was a rare moment in a race that was so caught up in tactics, scandal and polls.

6. Trump and Jake Tapper. When Jake Tapper pressed Donald Trump on whether he would disavow white supremacist David Duke, Trump claimed to not know what Duke stood for. The Feb. 28 appearance fueled greater concern that Trump was giving a nod to the racist element of the American electorate, even while Trump insisted that he had disavowed Duke and, in the interview, had been the victim of a faulty earpiece. What it did is also give some momentary strength to an anti-Trump movement from the right, led by a speech from Romney. Although some of their remnants remain, it proved to be too little too late.

5. Miss Universe. Alicia Machado was not a household name before the presidential campaign. She gained notoriety after Hillary Clinton, at the first presidential debate, told of her story of being berated by Trump for her weight gain while she served as Miss Universe. Then, in a middle-of-the-night display of resentment, Trump tweeted about her, suggesting that she had once made a sex tape. It was the type of impulsive behavior that should have put to rest that there was a tamer Trump who would emerge in the general election campaign — and yet another incident where he defied the wisdom that such a moment would sink a campaign.

4. Alec Baldwin’s Trump. “Saturday Night Live” did a big switcheroo in the fall, adding Alec Baldwin to play Trump in place of Darrell Hammond. It was an ingenious bit of casting in that Baldwin has been such an outspoken progressive, one who has flirted with the idea of running for office himself, and seems more than willing to be a thorn in the side of the president-elect. The impersonation clearly irks Trump, who has attacked Baldwin’s performance, but that may only drive greater ratings to the show even if it is a favorite of those in blue states. What we’d like to see: A Trump cameo where he instructs Baldwin on how he should be portrayed.

3.  ‘Basket of deplorables.’ When Clinton said that half of Trump’s supporters could be fit into a “basket of deplorables,” the damage wasn’t just what she said but where she said it: A tony Sept. 9 fundraiser in a posh Manhattan hotel where Barbra Streisand was performing. You couldn’t have picked a better place for Clinton to be caricatured as a creature of the elite. Plenty of commentators tried to point out that polling actually supported Clinton’s point, but it was a big gaffe, caught on camera. The takeaway: Never attack an opponent’s supporters, no matter how misguided you may think they are. The overlooked story is that Clinton actually explained that the other half of Trump’s supporters had genuine concerns about their displacement in the economy — in other words, she tried to empathize with just the white working class voters who would help propel Trump to victory in midwestern states.

2. The ‘Access Hollywood’ tape. For one weekend, the question wasn’t whether Donald Trump would lose, but whether he’d even make it to the Nov. 8 election. When the Washington Post broke the story of a 2004 “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump made lewd remarks about women, a stream of Capitol Hill Republicans began distancing themselves from Trump, and some called for him to withdraw as the tape was replayed nonstop on TV. That he recovered in the face of such a tape — and later stories about his alleged groping of other women — was proof of just how unusual an election this was, the solid connection he had with voters, and why campaigns may never be the same.

1. Election night. No matter how you look at it, the moment was still stunning. At the start of the evening, implicit in the coverage was that Trump would fall short. A few commentators, having looked at exit polls, tweeted that Hillary would be the next POTUS. That was why, when Trump walked out on stage in his victory lap, and gave a gracious speech, it was one of the country’s biggest political shockers, even if polls actually were quite close to the end. A man whose campaign started with doubts that it was even real and a mere publicity stunt was now the president-elect. Even his supporters seemed to be in disbelief that he pulled it off — while Clinton’s election night party, beneath the unbroken glass ceiling of New York’s Javits Center, was a moment of heartbreak. A year from now, we may have a better idea of whether this night was a fluke in political history — or truly a turning point.

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