Donald Trump, Brought To You By The Apprentice

More than a reality TV show, ‘The Apprentice’ served as a wall-to-wall commercial for the Trump empire

The January 12, 1976, cover of Time magazine featured Bill and Susan Seaforth Hayes, cast members of the NBC soap opera Days of Our Lives. The Seaforth Hayeses were posed dramatically, with Bill reaching out to his love, Susan, in anguish. The cover read, “Soap Operas: Sex and Suffering in the Afternoon,” and dove into the outlandish twists that kept viewers tuning in day after day. But the Days of Our Lives twist no one ever saw coming was 30 years later, when the series would be at the center of one of Donald Trump’s biggest disasters during his presidential campaign.

NBC has been in the soap-opera game for decades, and Days has easily been its most popular soap. Which is why, in 2005, it made perfect sense for Trump to promote his new NBC reality series, The Apprentice, on the show. What we wouldn’t find out until a decade later, however, is that while he was on set, Trump was recorded by an Access Hollywood hot mic, speaking lewdly about Days cast member Arianne Zucker and describing how he once tried to aggressively hit on Access Hollywood co-host Nancy O'Dell. “When you’re a star,” Trump said in the recording, “[women] let you do it. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” When the recording was released this October amid Trump’s presidential campaign, the demand increased for more unreleased footage from Trump’s tenure at NBC. Rumors have swirled about what might be on those tapes. Did Trump use the n-word on set? Did he sexually harass female contestants? Mark Burnett, the series’s producer, has refused to release any footage of Trump. But do we even need to dig into dusty archives for clandestinely recorded comments to hold against him? We don’t, not when all of The Apprentice serves as a public archive that documents the sexism and suffering contestants endured under Trump’s rule as commander-elect.

The Apprentice debuted on January 8, 2004, following a “super-size” episode of Friends on NBC’s Must-See TV Thursdays. For the uninitiated, the show followed businessmen and women from around the country as they competed in ridiculous tasks — selling lemonade on the streets of New York, holding a “fashion show” for the staff of a hotel so they could pick new garments to work in, or modeling underwear on the beach — in order to win a job with a $250,000 salary working for Trump. Despite the fact that “most people think the guy’s kind of a jerk,” the series debuted to great ratings. It was, after all, during the heyday of polarizing television. Personalities like American Idol’s Simon Cowell, who derided people for their lack of talent, and The Weakest Link’s Anne Robinson, who derided contestants for their ignorance, appeared on channel after channel. But Robinson’s tactics didn’t work; The Weakest Link lasted only a year on NBC before it was canceled. Unlike in the U.K., however, we were primed for a TV personality who could tap in to the American penchant for avarice on a show that prized money and power above all. Mark Burnett (having just created the popular CBS series Survivor) looked to Trump.

Trump could be as much of an asshole as Robinson’s Weakest Link persona, but I never once saw him mock a contestant’s intelligence. He would instead mock their inability to make money and to prevent themselves from becoming the absolute worst thing a person could be: a loser, and more specifically, a loser in the cutthroat world of business. When The Apprentice was announced in 2003, Burnett said of Trump: “Choosing Donald Trump as the ‘master’ proved to be one of my best-ever casting decisions. He is an incredible businessman, a captivating television personality and he has become a dear friend.” Never mind the fact that Trump, World’s Best Businessman, would go on to file for bankruptcy a year later. But Burnett understood that reality television is just like a soap opera: You build a fantasy and draw in the audience to make them think castaways are actually in danger on a deserted island, or that a bachelor will find love in a pool of strangers after a mere six weeks, or that a fledgling businessman, even a bankrupt one, is the king of a billion-dollar empire.

More than a reality TV show, The Apprentice served as a wall-to-wall commercial for the Trump empire. He never missed an opportunity to upsell every one of his properties in the series, whether it was the Trump Soho, the Mar-a-Lago Club, Trump Ice (a somehow still-operating brand of water), and his casinos (the ones that filed for bankruptcy the year the show debuted). He never missed a chance to point out how “successful” he was. In the midst of financial troubles that have plagued most of his career, the series worked as counter-programming to inform the American public that he was just fine, richer than ever, and adored by all of his employees. Every episode featured an in medias res scene in which he was purportedly conducting business by signing a contract or giving orders to an underling.

Trump used two of his actual employees each episode — usually Carolyn Kepcher and George Ross, but sometimes others when they were unavailable — to help him decide which contestant would ultimately become his apprentice. This was done by having Kepcher and Ross observe the contestants during their competitions and involving them in his firing decisions in the boardroom. The boardroom was the centerpiece of the series. When a team lost a task, they were brought to the boardroom to make a case for why they shouldn’t get axed. This, naturally, led to infighting, name-calling, and accusations, all for Trump’s amusement. But not just for his amusement — for the TV audience’s amusement too. Boardroom scenes became so popular that extended versions would air the following week, just before a new episode began. Watching The Apprentice, you began to relish seeing someone get fired and enjoy watching Trump declare himself judge, jury, and executioner. That’s the world he created. You started to feel like he was a great businessman and these squabbling amateurs needed to be taken down a peg. Part of the brilliance of the show was that Trump was able to construct a reality in which he was the ultimate moral authority.

In The Apprentice’s first season, Trump enforced a rigid moral code on the contestants. He divided the teams into men versus women and constantly reinforced gender roles, while simultaneously mentioning that women were “beautiful” before commending them on business success. In women, he hates aggression (see: Stacie Jones Upchurch, a black woman accused by her teammates of being aggressive and crazy in Season 2). If a woman is to be successful under Trump, she should be savvy, but not through dominance, and certainly not through sexual dominance. He regularly reprimanded women who used their sexuality to win competitions. In the fourth episode, he told the all-woman team: “You are smart, dynamic, and attractive women. You beat the guys fair and square. But you’re coming a little close to crossing the line, relying on your sexuality to win. It’s unnecessary.” His hypocrisy is revealed early on when we meet his girlfriend, Melania Trump. Melania existed on the show solely for her sexuality; during a Levi’s task in Season 2, she showed up in a pair of low-rise jeans and modeled them for the contestants. In the boardroom, Trump emphasized that Levi’s jeans are “all about the butt” and praised Melania’s looks. His celebrity guests, like George Steinbrenner and Donny Deutsch, regularly chimed in with how “pretty” the girls were, yet Deutsch told the women after they used their looks to win a competition, “You’ve set the women’s movement back about 70 years.” Trump himself told a team that he’s criticized by “eggheads” all the time, but if they “think there’s no sex in the boardroom,” they’re crazy. A few episodes later, he told a contestant who employed sexual tactics to win, “I’m not hiring a stripper. You’re fired.”

It’s mixed messages like this that illuminate the tears in Trump’s augmented reality. It’s hard to truly know what he believes because he’s so erratic. He never sticks to logic or reason — his hypocrisy is a hard through line. The Apprentice is a reality show, after all, and Trump’s mood swings propel the drama. In the Season 5 premiere, he’s on the verge of firing contestant Tarek Saab, whom he describes as a “disaster.” But he’s interrupted during his Tarek rant by Summer Zervos (a contestant who this year accused Trump of groping her) and immediately fires her instead, irritated that anyone would have the gall to interrupt him. In another episode, he declines to fire Tarek again because a woman becomes emotional and he “hates crying.” When Tarek jokes that the woman just wants everyone to love each other, Trump’s response is: “And you didn’t take advantage?”

More than 20 cast and crew members interviewed by the Associated Press claimed that Trump often sexually harassed women on set. Most of this probably exists in unaired footage, but what makes it to the screen isn’t exactly pleasant. In Season 1, he finds out contestants Nick Warnock and Amy Henry are involved with one another; he routinely digs into their sex life. In Season 4, a Miss Universe stops by and sits with Trump just so she can describe how “fun” it is to work for him. In Season 5, contestant Stacy Schneider claims to have been harassed by a male contestant, Brent Buckman. Trump and Season 1 winner Bill Rancic mock her for “changing” her story when she’s grilled in the boardroom, then chalk it up to “he said, she said,” despite this being a reality show where the incident has clearly been recorded on camera and could have been reviewed. It’s not all that different from Trump denying things he’s said publicly throughout the election cycle, even with the existence of video evidence. Why review evidence when you can come to your own conclusions?

Unfortunately for Trump, The Apprentice began to dip in the ratings season by season. Grasping, Trump suggested a season that pitted blacks versus whites, which mercifully never happened (producer Mark Burnett did, however, produce a season of Survivor that divided teams by race). That idea made it clear that changes to the show were going to be made. Season 6 saw the show relocated to Los Angeles, introduced by an unsettling opening sequence in which Melania struts out of a mansion in heels carrying their son, Barron, and squealing at Trump, “Welcome home, Daddy! Welcome home!” while kissing him. The season was meant to portray Trump as a family man — Ivanka and Donald Jr. were also in tow as judges — but the twist this season was that losing contestants would have to sleep in tents in his backyard. It was hardly conducive to business, but it made for dramatic television.

If The Apprentice seems, at times, like an image rehabilitation, it’s because it is. Amid his bankruptcy filings and being generally unlikable, midway through the series he began a public feud with Rosie O’Donnell. When he chose not to fire Miss USA Tara Conner for underage drinking and drug use, O’Donnell called him out on The View, the daytime talk show she once co-hosted. Trump responded by calling her “a real loser,” “a woman out of control,” and “nice fat little Rosie.”

Like the aforementioned firing of Zervos, Trump’s carefully crafted PR stunt of a TV show often unraveled whenever he was tested by a powerful woman. From time to time, he snapped at fellow judge Kepcher, even though she had worked for him for years. He fired women from the show for being “difficult to get along with” or talking back to him. Men famously fucked up on the show (Tarek, for example) and lasted to the final stretch because he thought they might “have something to offer.” The same year he feuded with O’Donnell, he also had words with Martha Stewart, who starred in her own version of The Apprentice that aired on a different night. Stewart claimed that due to The Apprentice’s dwindling ratings, her show was supposed to begin with her “firing” Trump and taking over the role as the series’s star. But nobody fires Trump. He drafted an open letter to Stewart and claimed that she was disloyal to him: “Be careful or I will do a syndicated daytime show, perhaps called The Boardroom, and further destroy the meager ratings you already have!”

The only woman to survive past her expiration date on the series was Omarosa Manigault. Manigault, who used the series to catapult herself into the role of professional reality-television villain, gave as good as she got in the series’s first season. Before the show spun out of control, Trump knew that she was good for ratings. As she terrorized her cast members, she also spun the story of a rags-to-riches black woman, one who is in line with Trump’s current theory that all black people live in inner cities until they claw their way into a white paradise. “I went from the projects to the White House,” Manigualt claimed in the third episode. Two weeks later, she said, “I watched my mother buy all of our school clothes at Goodwill.” It wasn’t until Manigault claimed she had a concussion from a piece of falling debris in one of Trump's properties, and therefore couldn’t give 100 percent on a task, that she was given the boot — perhaps because Trump knew the shrewd villain might turn it into a lawsuit. After her firing, she was brought back later that season in the finale and then on Trump’s The Celebrity Apprentice.

On The Celebrity Apprentice, a carnival of a completely different magnitude, C-list celebrities replaced real-life contestants because Trump needed ratings. The idea that any of these celebrities were capable or business savvy was often questionable, and he kept loose cannons like Gary Busey around far longer than need be and stirred up confrontation by bringing back people who were previously fired, à la La Toya Jackson. If anything, the high camp of including whacked-out celebrities desperate for relevancy allowed Donald’s personality to hide in plain sight, like when he harassed Playboy model Brande Roderick on-screen and crassly told her, “Must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees,” in reference to her getting on her knees and begging not to be fired. Surrounded by enough equally vulgar men like ex-American talk show host and full-time British cad Piers Morgan, Trump’s comments were laughed off and no one batted an eye.

By this point, Trump was no longer publicly a businessman: He had become a reality television star, and it kinda worked. Gone were the rumors of bankruptcy or the tabloid stories of his affairs and marriages — he was America’s entertainment. As far as rehabilitating his image, Trump pulled off an epic PR stunt; millions of people tuned in weekly just to watch him shout “You’re fired!” He tread a fine line between a reality TV star and a serious businessman, and, later, politician. When you are a reality star, people don’t care about your history of housing discrimination or your quest against the Central Park Five or your penchant for grabbing women by the pussy. He thought he’d rehabbed his image enough that he could become a man who ran for president of the United States and he would be as beloved by Americans as he was by his NBC audience. Trump’s campaign has been fraught with lies and misstatements, denials of quotes or incidents like his campaign manager attacking a reporter even when there were witnesses.

Trump still operates as if there’s an editing room that will remove the less-than-savory parts of his campaign and present him as the perfect candidate. In the last days of his campaign, with his reliance on surprise twists from FBI leaks and campaigning in Michigan (which has gone Democrat the last six elections), Trump is once again facing a spiraling downturn like his once-popular series endured. Last year, when NBC let him go from The Celebrity Apprentice and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, his one-stop-shop publicity machine came to a crashing halt. When the campaign is over, he’ll be without the support of NBC or any of the celebrities he was once able to wrangle onto his series, except for Manigault, who is Trump’s director of African-American outreach (Stacey Dash must’ve been busy). And, of course, there’s Rudy Giuliani, who appeared on the show’s second season to sell books and continues to use Trump’s infamy to elevate his own relevance. Trump will need a new way to rehab his image. Fortunately for him, America loves televised villains. We love to see them rise and fall and dust themselves off and try again.