Is Exiting NBC Executive the Fall Guy for Network’s Trump Forum ‘Disaster’?

Mark Lukasiewicz was the executive producer of one of the few press forums Donald Trump praised

Emmy-winning NBC News executive Mark Lukasiewicz stepped down this month because of an internal “purge” tied to NBC’s handling of the 2016 election — including the September “Commander in Chief Forum” where Matt Lauer was accused of taking it too easy on Donald Trump, a knowledgeable insider told TheWrap.

Lukasiewicz strongly denied that is the case. In an email to TheWrap, he said his transition was “smooth and entirely amicable” and had nothing to do with his work executive producing the special — or dozens of other specials he has produced for NBC and MSNBC.

The insider said Lukasiewicz carried out directions from NBC News chairman Andrew Lack at the Commander in Chief event, which was widely criticized. (New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted that it felt like “an embarrassment to journalism,” and CNN quoted an anonymous NBC executive who called it a “disaster.”)

The insider said that Lukasiewicz is “a good man and a good journalist,” but was instructed not to spend too much time pressing Trump, adding: “He wouldn’t have a reflex to sneeze without Andy saying, ‘You’re going to sneeze.'”

Lukasiewicz said an earlier Wrap story highlighting his involvement in the forum was a “malicious and erroneous piece of gossip” that denigrated his long journalistic career.

“I am overseas right now, on assignment for NBC News with my successor and colleague Rashida Jones, as we move through a smooth and entirely amicable transition at NBC News Specials,” he wrote. “I executive produced many events for NBC News before and after the forum that The Wrap strangely chose to fixate on, including debates, conventions, Election Night, the Inauguration and President Trump’s first address to Congress.”

In a Facebook post last week, he said that a recent reorganization at NBC News “gave me the chance to consider making a change, and I am taking it.”

But the insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, offered a very different take: that Lukasiewicz is being eased into a new role because he is among NBC veterans who can “point fingers” at moments when the network inadvertently puffed up Trump at a time his campaign seemed doomed. That included the forum, where Lauer was panned for not pressing Trump on his claim that he had opposed the Iraq invasion all along.

NBC News was trying to treat Trump gently at that point in the campaign, the insider believes, because Hillary Clinton was widely expected to beat the businessman reality star, who had a long relationship with the network through “The Apprentice” franchise.

But it all blew up when Trump won, sending NBC on a “purge and tie-cutting” of people involved in the network’s missteps, the insider said.

An NBC insider strongly disputed that characterization, adding that Lukasiewicz wouldn’t even be a logical fall guy.

“The theory is incorrect,” the NBC insider said. “”No one in the world thinks Mark has any culpability in the Commander in Chief Forum.”

There may have been other reasons Lauer didn’t press harder on Trump: CNN’s Jake Tapper, for one, has talked about the challenge of striking the right balance in questioning Trump between fact-checking his statements and trying to move on to new subjects.

Whatever the case, the forum was widely panned, with NBC News and Lauer fielding accusations that they went easy on Trump because of complaints that a Republican primary debate on CNBC had been unfair.

But at least one person liked the Commander in Chief Forum. Despite his routine criticisms of NBC News and other outlets, Trump praised Lauer’s work.