Ever since Reza Aslan joined Twitter in March 2011, the Iranian-American public intellectual has famously referred to a lot of different individuals with the same slightly inelegant (but passionate) descriptor: "piece of shit." In May, after Sean Hannity continued to perpetuate conspiracy theories about the death of D.N.C. employee Seth Rich, Aslan called the Fox News pundit and Trump stooge a "piece of shit." When the controversial conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza tweeted a crude missive about Barack Obama's parents, Aslan proclaimed that D'Souza was an "adulterous piece of shit felon." (In 2014, D'Souza pleaded guilty in a federal court to a charge of making an illegal campaign contribution; he has denied that he had an "affair".) More recently, Aslan proclaimed that Michael Oren, a conservative scholar and Israel's former ambassador to the U.S., "has always been a piece of shit." And then there was the president of the United States, who wasn't just any ordinary offender in Aslan's mind. As he tweeted in May, Donald Trump was a "lying conniving scumbag narcissistic sociopath piece of shit."
These tweets might have been forgotten had it not been for another similar tweet that Aslan sent in early June when he was the host of Believer, a scholarly CNN program that investigated various religious sects around the globe. It was Saturday afternoon, and like most of us tend to do these days, Aslan had picked up his phone to read the news. Earlier that week, there had been another terror attack in London that had killed seven people and wounded almost 50, and by Saturday afternoon, Trump had done what Trump does best—drumming up controversy by tweeting that the attack was another piece of evidence that America needed a travel ban from six majority-Muslim countries.
Aslan saw Trump's tweet and, as his blood boiled for a moment, he tapped out 124 characters: "This piece of shit is not just an embarrassment to America and a stain on the presidency. He's an embarrassment to humankind." He promptly hit "tweet," put down his phone, and took his family to dinner. Months later, while we spoke for the latest episode of Inside the Hive, Aslan acknowledged that this "was maybe the fifth time that I had called Donald Trump a 'piece of shit' on Twitter." But something was different about this June viewpoint. While Aslan was at dinner, the right-wing media had picked up on Aslan's tweet and run with it. But he didn't see anything that evening. Instead, he tucked his kids into bed, chose not to go online again, and called it a day.
The next morning, when Aslan finally checked his phone, his world had been turned upside down. "I've got emergency e-mails from CNN, from my agent, from everyone," Aslan told me. Right-wing outlets spurted out stories with headlines and story ledes that were sure to inflame the growing anti-CNN faction of the American electorate. "CNN host calls Trump 'a piece of s--t' after London attack," The Washington Examiner noted. Breitbart, The Daily Caller, and plenty of other conservative outlets used Aslan's tweet to harangue CNN as a bastion of dithering liberal bias.
At first, Aslan had no intention of apologizing. Instead, he took the opposite approach. He wrote a long statement that said he was underscoring "the fact that the President of the United States is a racist, sexist, lying, lecherous, pathological liar, and narcissistic sociopath. That we are in an existential crisis; that our lives are in danger and that anyone who has a voice, needs to be screaming at the top of their lungs because all of history is watching us right now."
Aslan said he was basically told by his corporate overlords that he could publish the statement at his own peril. And so he began to think twice about his actions: after all, his wife was getting nervous about the uproar; the right-wing media was surrounding him on social media, and the hashtag #CNNisISIS was trending (mostly because Aslan is Muslim). Aslan, who was once engaged in one of the more cringe-worthy interviews in Fox News history, decided to delete his original statement calling Trump a "sexist, lying, lecherous, pathological liar." He pivoted and issued an alternate, apologetic version. A few minutes later, CNN followed with their own statement saying they accepted Aslan's apology. And that, as far as Aslan was concerned, was the end of it. Or so he thought. (CNN did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
On Monday, Aslan showed up to work at the offices of Believer, and jumped back into the production schedule for the taping of Season 2. The tweet seemed like old news by that point. "It never really became a big mainstream story," Aslan told me. "The only mainstream news outlet to pick it up was The Boston Globe. Otherwise it was all right-wing news groups." Then, Thursday morning rolled around. Aslan woke up, and began getting ready to fly to London to shoot the first episode of his new season. At the same exact time, he says, CNN president Jeff Zucker was having lunch with Lloyd Braun,the head of the production company behind Believer. "[Zucker] turned to Lloyd and said, 'I'm dropping your boy,'" Aslan told me. "It took everyone by surprise." The next day, the news broke bigly. "Aslan has been a virulent critic of Trump for some time, but this particular tweet crossed a line in the minds of some media critics," wrote CNN's media critic, Brian Stelter. "Prominent conservatives weighed in and said they wanted Aslan to be fired."
In hindsight, Aslan believes his firing was a message to other CNN personalities that they should not cross a line from their show's premise into political punditry, especially a scatological kind. He also thinks his firing was related to CNN's role in the AT&T-Time Warner merger, which put his parent company's fate in the hands of Trump's Department of Justice. "This was when the first stirrings of the AT&T-Time Warner merger were coming out into the open, and even back then, Trump was talking about how the only way he's going to let this thing happen is if they get rid of either Zucker, or CNN—punish CNN in some way. And I think Zucker, despite the fact that the show was a huge money-making success for them, decided you know what, it's not worth it, and I'll just throw the Trump administration a bone." (A spokesperson for CNN declined to comment about this theory.)
Yet there was a twist. "It was made perfectly clear to me, that this was going to be amicable: let's just be nice and let's be friendly, and when this whole thing dies down, you can have the show back. Have the season back, you can get paid all the money we owe you, and we'll all just end as friends." A couple of weeks later, Aslan reached out to CNN to get the show back and get paid, and, Aslan said, "they basically told us to go fuck ourselves." When I asked if they actually used that language, he said, "The offer that they made, was the legal version of 'go fuck yourself.'" Months later, he and the network have finally severed all ties and Aslan has his show back, and has been paid.
It's clear that Aslan is still sore about his divorce from CNN. But he feels just as furious about Trump as he did when he issued the tweet. "I am convinced that if I had called [Trump] a piece of shit two weeks ago, as opposed to four months ago, no one would have noticed," Aslan said in conclusion. "The president is literally a piece of shit, and now it's just like, whatever."