When the credits scroll on the 15th season of The Apprentice, the show Donald Trump helped create, many familiar names will pass by. There will be Mark Burnett, who said he had "never been a supporter of Donald Trump’s candidacy" after the "grab her by the pussy" tape came out, but is now reportedly helping Trump plan a live inauguration special. There will be new host Arnold Schwarzenegger, who refused to support Trump, but also should have been a reminder to us all of how easily celebrities can capture hearts. And, of course, there will be Donald Trump. As Variety reported on Thursday, the president-elect does not plan to relinquish his executive producer credit — or the payment that comes with it. "It’s unclear," Variety noted, "what his per-episode fee is, but it is likely to be in the low five-figures, at minimum."
This development shouldn't have been terribly surprising, as Trump has yet to turn down a chance to see his name on television or add a new conflict of interest to his repertoire. He is reportedly planning to hold a press conference next week to discuss how his business ventures will be kept separate from presidential responsibilities. As of this moment, however, the "blind trust" he describes, set to be run by his children, sounds terribly similar to hearing a third grader promise to go to bed while clutching a flashlight and "Magic Tree House" book under the covers. But shh, he says. Don't fret. Trump isn't breaking the rules; he's just making new ones. We've never had a reality TV show host turned president before, something he's taken advantage of time and time again when arguing that precedents don't exist in unprecedented circumstances.
"In theory I could run my business perfectly," he told the New York Times a few weeks ago, "and then run the country perfectly. And there’s never been a case like this where somebody’s had, like, if you look at other people of wealth, they didn’t have this kind of asset and this kind of wealth, frankly. It’s just a different thing." As far as producing things goes, it seems that Ronald Reagan, our other celebrity president, was the only other executive to have a producing credit. Reagan's projects came out long before his presidency, however; it seems doubtful that the army training film Resisting Enemy Interrogation was still making money in the '80s.
Although it's novel to have a president-elect who still meets with business partners while planning transitions — and whose company makes money when diplomats start flooding his hotel, and who owes money to the Bank of China — past presidents have earned royalties in office. Obama published a children's book during his first term, but donated the proceeds to charity. He did, however, continue to make money from his first two books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, during his time in office. Obama kept those proceeds. (Jimmy Carter waited until his presidency ended to publish his children's book, The Little Baby Snoogle-Fleejer.) Hillary Clinton would have also collected book royalties as president.
Trump could donate his Apprentice dough to charity, if he decides to keep the financial relationship alive. He could also forgo his fee completely, like he says he is going to do with his presidential salary. Either way, it might require additional scrutiny to make sure he follows through; Trump promised to give the royalties from The Art of the Deal, Crippled America, Trump Vodka, and Trump: The Game to charity. There is little proof that he ended up doing anything of the sort. He hasn't even contributed to his own charitable foundation since 2008. Trump once told Howard Stern that he was donating his money from The Apprentice, but he didn't specify where it was going. And without his tax returns, it's hard to prove the money went anywhere besides right back to Trump's coffers.
Beyond the issue of compensation and the many other possible conflicts this connection could cause, Trump's involvement in The Apprentice would also preserve his weird "will-they-won't-they" relationship with NBC. The network, which seems to inspire many of Trump's obsessive late-night internet reveries, has to cover Trump objectively, even while staring at all of its unavoidable ties to the president-elect. Back in the summer of 2015, NBCUniversal said it would no longer air Miss USA or Miss Universe pageants because of Trump's decision to call Mexicans rapists. He later complained in a statement that "they will stand behind lying Brian Williams, but won’t stand behind people that tell it like it is, as unpleasant as that may be.” NBC also faced calls to fire Trump back in 2011 after he started talking about Obama's birth certificate. It didn't.
Although Trump was no longer hosting The Apprentice during that fight, he did host another NBC show last year — Saturday Night Live. He then went on NBC's The Tonight Show, where host Jimmy Fallon playfully tousled his hair. A West Virginia teacher later told the New York Times that she voted for Trump because the latter appearance made him seem “very humble.”
In October, an old Access Hollywood tape appeared to upend Trump's campaign, and later led NBC to fire Billy Bush, who laughed as Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. NBC News had been aware that the footage existed before the Washington Post broke the story about it, but the network held the tape while lawyers were reviewing it and lost its own news department the scoop. MGM, which will pay Trump's Apprentice paychecks, not NBC, refused to release the show's outtakes during the campaign season. Regardless, several stories about his behavior on the show came out. The AP reported in October that Trump would point at women in the boardroom and say, 'You'd fuck her, wouldn't you? I'd fuck her. C'mon, wouldn't you?'"
Despite his financial interest in NBC's success, these days Trump spends lots of time complaining about the network and its properties.
Sometimes he goes on NBC shows to complain about other NBC shows, as he did when he told the Today show earlier this week that “Frankly, the way [SNL] is going now … who knows how long that show is going to be on? It’s a terrible show.”
The whole back-and-forth brings to mind what CBS executive Les Moonves said at the beginning of the 2016 election: "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS." One wonders if NBC feels the same. We'll have to wait and see if he continues his habit of tweeting out reminders that his hit reality TV show is airing while in the White House.
Regardless of how this executive producer drama ends — or how extensive Trump's relationship with the show ends up being — we can look forward to the continued influence of the entertainment business on Trump's priorities as he continues to hire and fire employees in an exceptionally public way in real life. Steven Mnuchin, who has produced films about villains entrusted with power by the federal government, the apocalypse, and people who eat other people out of desperation, was unsurprisingly also interested in the Trump campaign early on — and is now expected to be Trump's Treasury pick. Steve Bannon, Trump's Breitbart-running adviser, made his millions from Seinfeld royalties (he was at the right place at the right time during his stint as an investment banker) and once cowrote scripts for a Coriolanus rap musical and Titus Andronicus in Space. The person in charge of the Small Business Administration will be Linda McMahon, whose entertainment expertise comes from running WWE.
Kellyanne Conway says we shouldn't be worried about this potential conflict to begin with. "Were we so concerned about the hours and hours and hours spent on the golf course of the current president?" she told CNN on Friday. "I mean, presidents have a right to do things in their spare time, in their leisure time." Which is kind of an odd comparison to make. Trump, unlike most presidents, would be getting free publicity, depending on where he chose to golf. He's right about one thing: There’s never been a case like this.