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How Kathy Griffin and John Legend Faced Down Blowback for Challenging President Trump (Exclusive Book Excerpt)

“I learned that there is such a thing as bad publicity,” Griffin tells Danny Goldberg in his new book ”Bloody Crossroads 2020: Art, Entertainment and Resistance to Trump“

No performer attracted the rage of the president the way Kathy Griffin did, perhaps because her reality show “My Life on the D List” had won two Emmys. (Trump often complained that he never won one.) Moreover, Griffin was fluent in the populist culture of the Kardashians and thus she could get into the heads of tabloid aficionados, a capability that eluded most Democrats. Much of her humor was in the tradition of insult comedians, but she made a distinction between her approach and the new president’s: “I punch up. Trump punches down.”

She had met Trump frequently over the years, including an appearance on “Celebrity Apprentice.” “I saw him as an over-the-top, fame-hungry, harmless blowhard,” Griffin told me. The comedian was horrified as Trump brought his reality-show mentality into the White House. “The premise of ‘The Apprentice’ is antithetical to what actually makes a good business. Trump advised the contestants to be as divisive among themselves as possible. That’s not how you run an administration. I’m not a historian. I’m not Michael Beschloss — but I know that !“

Four months into Trump’s presidency on May 31, 2017, Griffin posted a gag photo on Instagram in which she held up a rubber mask of Donald Trump’s face smeared with ketchup — a fantasy of the president’s head cut off. Trump’s team felt they found a fight they could win: destroying the career of a show business critic while intimidating other entertainers in the process.

Griffin ruefully recalled, “I thought the photo would have a shelf life of two days. I learned that there is such a thing as bad publicity.” The photographer leaked the image to the celebrity-centric website TMZ, whose founder, Harvey Levin, subsequently told The Daily Beast that he is in regular touch with Trump and boasted, “I consider myself to be his personal publicist.”

The president tweeted: “Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself. My children, especially my 11 year old son Baron, are having a hard time with this—sick.” Melania chimed in: “As a mother, wife and human being—that photo makes you wonder about the mental health of the person who did it.” On Fox News, Sean Hannity called Griffin an ISIS sympathizer—as if the stylized photo was in the same moral universe as actual beheadings.

These attacks were soon followed by a cascade of rejections from mainstream show business. Griffin had twenty-five stand-up performances scheduled, but the offers were abruptly pulled because of the supposed risk of violent protest and each cancellation was reported in real time on TMZ. CNN fired her from her New Year’s Eve gig and reported its decision as “breaking news.” Anderson Cooper,  who had co-hosted the  annual celebration with Griffin for years, cravenly tweeted, “I am appalled by the photo shoot Kathy Griffin took part in.” Griffin’s agency, WME,  dropped her as a client.

Trump followers sent death threats to Griffin, her sister (who was in the hospital being treated for cancer), and their octogenarian mother. The Justice Department placed the comedian on the no-fly list for two months and formally investigated her for conspiracy to assassinate the president. On “Good Morning America,” Donald Trump Jr. opined, “She deserved everything.” Griffin complained of the “GMA” host, “George Stephanopoulos didn’t push back at all.”

Amid the onslaught, the embattled comedienne got emotional support from Jim Carrey, who reassured her, “You are going to put it through your Kathy Griffin comedy prism.… make the story funny and you’re gonna go tell it.” Indeed, there was a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in talking to Griffin. On one hand, she was a victim; but on the other, she exploited the situation brilliantly. By the fall of 2017, Griffin had booked an 18-country international “Laugh Your Head Off” tour, although she remained on the Interpol list and was detained at every airport. “They’d scan my passport. I’d put on my ‘I’m not in ISIS’ face, but they’d send me into a locked room alone for an indeterminate amount of time. Eventually, I would get my stuff back and, thank God, I didn’t have to miss any of my shows.”    

Yet Griffin’s place in Trumpist demonology endured. In 2019 at a Miami event for the pro-Trump super PAC American Priority, a PhotoShopped video was shown in which the president’s face was superimposed on a scene from the film “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” Trump was depicted brutally murdering his political enemies, including Hillary Clinton, Maxine Waters… and Griffin.

Another performer who attracted Trump’s ire was John Legend, whose musicianship and songwriting made him the only singer to ever win all four major entertainment awards, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.

Legend had long seen himself as a socially conscious artist. When he was 15 years old, growing up in Springfield, Ohio, McDonald’s had a contest in which applicants wrote an essay in answer to the question, “How do you plan to make Black history?“ Legend told me, “My essay basically said I was going to become a successful recording artist and use my success to help make my community better and fight for justice and equality. I’ve been thinking that I was going to do that since I was a teenager. I was influenced by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone, Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte and all the artists that spoke out against the war. I read about Dr. King a lot. I read about so many others who struggled for equality and for justice. They were my superheroes. I didn’t read comic books, I read books about history makers.”

In 2008, Legend was an early supporter of Barack Obama and in 2014, he wrote and sang “Glory” for “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s film about one of Dr. King’s most famous civil rights campaigns. Legend and his wife, model and TV star Chrissy Teigen, were appalled when Trump was elected. “Trump literally is the worst person we could imagine being president for a lot of us,” Legend said. “We felt even more urgency because he came from the celebrity world. We would see him at events. Chrissy and I always thought he was a joke, always thought he was an idiot, always thought he was full of s—.”

In September 2019, Legend appeared in “Justice for All,” a special hosted by NBC’s Lester Holt about mass incarceration. There was a brief mention of a reform bill that Trump had just signed that made some incremental progress on the issue but fell far short of remedying the massive problem that the United States had more people imprisoned per capita than any nation in the world, the majority of whom are people of color. Legend recalls Trump watched the special “and felt he didn’t get enough credit in the conversation. He  wanted us to kiss his ass. He thought he had done all that was needed. We didn’t  acknowledge him much and he was pissed about it. He clearly watched it with one lens, which is how much do they talk about me and how awesome am I?”

Trump tweeted that the singer was “a boring musician” and referred to Teigen as his “filthy mouthed wife.” The next night, James Corden quipped, “Trump has done a lot of work to support criminal justice. He’s had half his campaign staff thrown in jail.” Stephan Colbert told his audience that Teigen’s nickname for Trump  #PresidentPussyAssBitch was trending: “She just beat Trump at Twitter and nicknames.”

Excerpted from “Bloody Crossroads 2020: Art, Entertainment and Resistance to Trump” by Danny Goldberg, published by Akashic Books. Copyright © 2021 by Danny Goldberg. All rights reserved.

Danny Goldberg is the author of the acclaimed books "How the Left Lost Teen Spirit," "Bumping Into Geniuses," "In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea" and "Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain." He began his career in 1969 with Billboard, then worked as a personal manager for Nirvana, Bonnie Raitt, the Allman Brothers Band and Sonic Youth, and was president of several major record companies. He currently runs Gold Village Entertainment, a management company whose clients include Steve Earle, Martha Wainwright and the Waterboys. His latest book is "Bloody Crossroads 2020: Art, Entertainment, and Resistance to Trump."