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Was his joke the reason Trump ran for president? Some say so, and it torments him

Comedian Jon Rineman.
Comedian Jon Rineman.

When the definitive history of Donald Trump’s presidency is written, it’ll probably begin on April 30, 2011, long before he was actually elected.

That’s when Seth Meyers, then the anchor of “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live,” told a joke that, some believe, so infuriated Trump he resolved to run for president.

Speaking at the White House Correspondents' Dinner that night, Meyers acknowledged Trump in the audience, and then said: “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke.”

It got a big laugh, but not from Trump, who sat rigid and stone-faced in the audience, staring daggers at Meyers. A few more zingers followed.

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Meyers didn’t write that joke. Comedian Jon Rineman did — and he regrets it. Talking publicly for the first time about the one-liner regarded by some as a pivotal moment in American political history, Rineman thinks he and the country would be better off today if he never scribbled that joke in his notebook. He’s not kidding. Rineman is tormented by the idea that he could be one of the reasons Trump became president.

“I’ve been in therapy over this,” says Rineman. “Of all the jokes I wrote in my life, that one took zero thought and effort, and there was no malicious intent. But we all know what happened after that.”

Of course it’s impossible to know what, precisely, motivated Trump to run for president in 2016, but the comic beatdown he endured that night at the correspondents’ dinner, not only from Meyers but also former president Barack Obama, did have a profound effect on him.

“That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature in the political world,” New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman wrote in 2016.

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Rineman, who grew up in New Hampshire, is a talented and prolific joke writer. He graduated from Emerson College in 2005, and four years later was on staff at “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” grinding out dozens of gags a day. In early 2011, Fallon’s producer, Michael Shoemaker, took him aside.

“Mike said, ‘How’d you like to write a few jokes for my friend’s big dinner?’ ” Rineman recalls. “I was just a writer on the show, one of the younger writers, and I said sure. Honest to God, I just thought his friend was having a dinner party.”

A week or so later, Rineman was summoned to a meeting. Initially, he didn’t know why. Then he did. Turns out Shoemaker’s “friend” was Meyers, and the “big dinner” was the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, when the president and the press corps call a temporary truce and gather in a hotel ballroom for a few laughs and a lot of wine.

Rineman was one of the comedy writers tapped to work up material for Meyers. Others included a few of his Fallon colleagues, as well as then-“Saturday Night Live” writers John Mulaney, Colin Jost, and Alex Baze, and “Chappelle’s Show” co-creator Neal Brennan.

Meyers knew Trump would be at the dinner and he wanted to poke fun at him. Not just because he was hosting a popular reality show, “The Apprentice,” but also because Trump was promulgating the discredited birther conspiracy theory, alleging that Obama hadn’t been born in the United States.

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Rineman got to work. Sitting on his couch in an undershirt, Celtics gym shorts, and a pair of Red Sox flip flops — “I was dressed like an idiot from New Hampshire” — he dashed off two pages of jokes. A few weeks later, he and the other writers sat around a table while Meyers read their stuff out loud.

“I was last,” Rineman says. “Seth was reading my jokes and they were bombing. Like, bombing. Nothing was hitting and it was really awkward.”

Except the last joke, the one about Trump. Seth laughed. But it was written as “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a prank.” Brennan wondered if “prank” was the right word.

“I could feel it slipping away,” Rineman says. “So I said, 'How about ‘joke’? And Seth liked it.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Rineman watched the correspondents’ dinner on C-SPAN with his then-fiance. His joke landed like a haymaker, and when the camera zoomed in on Trump, the anger was obvious.

“I was, like, oh my God, what just happened?” Rineman says. “It was one of those things where time stood still.”

Meyers wasn’t the only one who taunted Trump that night. Obama also took a turn, mocking the birther conspiracy by playing his “birth video” — a clip from Disney’s “The Lion King” — and also praising Trump for demonstrating presidential leadership in firing Gary Busey on “The Apprentice.”

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The evening left a mark. Meyers encountered Trump a few nights later at a charity function in New York, and he was furious.

“I walked over to thank him for being a good sport and he really impressed on me then that I had taken it too far,” Meyers told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016.

The next day, Meyers warned Rineman that Trump was very angry, and told him to remove any mention of the joke from social media. He followed up with a note: “Thanks for all your help with the dinner. It was great meeting/working with you. I gave Trump your #.”

Seth Meyers' thank you note to Jon Rineman
Seth Meyers' thank you note to Jon Rinemanhandout

The legend of the event has only grown. The video of Meyers’s remarks has been viewed more than six million times on YouTube. In 2015 — four years later — Meyers saw Trump again, this time at the “Saturday Night Live” 40th anniversary special. He invited him to come on “Late Night” and Trump agreed — on one condition, Meyers told Politico. He wanted an on-air apology for the wisecracks at the correspondents’ dinner. It didn’t happen.

Was the run for president in 2016 Trump’s revenge? Some think so.

“On that night, Trump’s own sense of public humiliation became so overwhelming that he decided, perhaps at first unconsciously, that he would, somehow, get his own back — perhaps even pursue the presidency after all, no matter how nihilistically or absurdly, and redeem himself,” The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, who was seated a few tables from Trump at the dinner, wrote in 2015.

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Rineman says he never imagined Trump would prevail in 2016, but election night turned uncomfortable quickly.

“He seemed to be winning a lot of states,” he says. “I had dry mouth and began sweating around my neck and shoulders. I messed everything up by writing a joke in my gym shorts 5½ years ago.'”

By the time Trump became the commander-in-chief, Rineman was head monologue writer for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” But he’s not now. The past few years have been unhappy. He suffered a mild stroke, left the show, and got divorced. He’s teaching at Emerson now, and developed a board game, Anti-Social Skills, with six other comics and writers.

He knows his fortunes aren’t tied to the joke. Or are they?

“I do regret writing it,” he says. “Any trouble you can avoid, you should avoid.”

Rineman has already voted, yes, and, no, he’s not supporting the president.

“It feels personal,” he says. “I’m like the bad Forrest Gump. I’m Forrest Trump.”


Mark Shanahan can be reached at mark.shanahan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.