On the First “Real Time” of 2021, Bill Maher Explores the Trump Legacy

Maher’s guests were Kellyanne Conway, Katie Couric and Matt Jones

Bill Maher
Bill Maher on the January 15, 2021 episode of "Real Time With Bill Maher."

“There are 20,000 armed troops on heightened alert in Washington right now, and Joe [Biden] will be giving his inauguration speech in front of, basically, nobody. Welcome to my world, Joe.” That was how Bill Maher summarized both the current state of Washington, DC and the current state of his studio setup in his first episode of 2021. Since the last episode of Real Time With Bill Maher, some things have changed on a national political level — and Maher’s studio audience now consists of crew members and show staff, for pandemic safety reasons. 

In his opening monologue, Maher addressed the Capitol breach, offering a vivid description of the events followed by — as one might expect — a quip. “That’s something I never thought I’d see,” Maher said. And then the kicker: “Trump supporters taking the stairs.” When the reaction was muted, Maher wryly commented, “Even the people who wrote it didn’t laugh that much.”

Maher also addressed Donald Trump being impeached for the second time, and his subsequent exile by various social media companies. Up first among the night’s guests? Former Trump senior counselor Kellyanne Conway. A minute or so of amicable banter between the two followed — they share a birthday! He complimented her pants! — before Maher turned the subject to the inauguration 4 years ago. “That was a great day,” Conway said. 

“So how do you look back, 4 years later,” Maher said. “Anything go wrong?” Cue the end of his poker face and a wicked grin. Maher did credit Conway for being one of the few members of Trump’s inner circle who acknowledged that Joe Biden won the 2020 election — though exactly when she did so provided one of the interview’s more contentious moments. Maher argued that Conway hadn’t done so until early December; Conway contended that she had done so earlier, although perhaps not in a public setting.

From there, Maher and Conway debated Trump’s legacy; Conway posited that Trump’s handling of the economy and the military had been impressive, while Maher offered the position that Trump hadn’t changed much in those areas from the Obama presidency. That, in turn, segued into a rhetorical discussion of whether or not Jimmy Carter counted as a “modern President.” (The context: Conway’s statement that Trump is the only modern President who hadn’t started a new war.) 

“Do you think you helped normalize anything bad?” Maher asked in a question that cut to the heart of the debate on the effects of Trump’s time in office. Maher then cited a few passages from All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, while Conway evoked Trump’s appeal to the “forgotten man.” As retrospective looks at controversial presidencies go, it broke little new ground — but it did venture into some unexpected places.

For the episode’s panel, Maher was joined by veteran journalist Katie Couric and Kentucky Sports Radio founder Matt Jones, whose latest project (written with Chris Tomlin) is the book Mitch, Please!: How Mitch McConnell Sold Out Kentucky (and America, Too). The panel discussed extremist beliefs within Congress and whether Mitch McConnell might end up voting to convict Donald Trump in the second impeachment trial.

This led to a wider discussion of Trump’s continuing influence on the Republican Party, at which point Maher got visceral. “We let the alien on the spaceship, and it laid eggs,” Maher said. From there, the trio discussed free speech and social media — and Jones’s belief that Maher needs to watch wrestling. Also, apparently Katie Couric is a distant relative of William Henry Harrison. Who knew? 

For the evening’s New Rules, Maher began with jokes about inspirational slogans on pillows and the lack of taste in uncooked tofu, as well as the phenomenon of scammers selling CBD oil in Maher’s name. (“I’m Bill Maher and it’s made from parts of the cannabis plant that don’t get you high,” he pointed out.) Maher returned to one of his running themes to close out the show: whether or not a national reconciliation is possible. And he used the Capitol breach to address the paradox of many Republican voters. “You thought Trump was going to be the bull in the china shop? He was,” Maher said. “But you were the china.” In the waning minutes of an episode focused on exploring contradictions, it was a particularly resonant image.

Subscribe here for our free daily newsletter.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.