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The Inside Story of How ‘The Apprentice’ Rescued Donald Trump

September 8, 2016, 10:30 PM UTC
UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JULY 9: Businessman Donald Trump (L) attends the first stop of the 16 city 'The Apprentice' Recruiting Tour on July 9, 2004 at Universal Studios Hollywood in Universal City, California. (Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)
Amanda Edwards — Getty Images

Just when the Trump brand was teetering on the edge of no longer being the gold standard, along came a British-immigrant TV producer who was only a few years removed from selling $18 T-shirts on Venice Beach. By 2002, that shirt seller, Mark Burnett, had transformed himself into the creator and chief architect of Survivor, the biggest of the TV reality shows.

One of the nation’s most durable ratings powerhouses, Survivor was a glamorous bit of TV catnip that attracted viewers by the millions to watch beautiful people compete in exotic spots such as the Australian outback and the Polynesian islands. The ratings zoomed from the start, but Burnett’s newfound millions couldn’t mask one bit of unhappiness at the center of his life: he had little kids at home in New York and he was hardly ever there. On one visit home from filming the show, Burnett’s son, ten years old at the time, told his dad he’d forgotten what he looked like.

“There has to be a way to do a successful show in an American city,” Burnett thought. The way home, he realized, was through Donald Trump. Burnett’s lightbulb moment came when he was filming the finale of Survivor: Marquesas in New York’s Central Park, at Wollman ice-skating rink, which Trump operated, having famously renovated it in a jiffy and under budget after the city government had spent six years and $12 million failing to fix it. Burnett was fed up with being stuck in the jungle, “with crocodiles and ants and everything that could kill you.” He decided that his next show needed to be set in a different kind of jungle, made of asphalt, “and what I needed was someone larger-than-life, very colorful,” a character who could carry this new urban Survivor, who would be likable, tough, and fascinating enough to interest an audience for a full season.

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Wollman Rink put the idea right in Burnett’s face: TRUMP was plastered all over the Zamboni and the walls of the rink. Burnett took the hint and went to see Trump at his office in Trump Tower. Burnett’s notion for a new show had struck him on one of his visits home, when he watched ant colonies swarming around each other; it looked like a battle. Burnett let the image tumble around in his mind and it morphed into teams of competing job-seekers—the premise for The Apprentice. Burnett’s meeting with Trump lasted an hour. Burnett explained that the show would showcase Trump’s whole empire—Trump Tower, the casinos, the hotels, the helicopter and the jet, the opulent apartment, and the splendor of Mar-a-Lago. Trump would be the main character, the arbiter of talent, the boss—judge, jury, and executioner in a weekly winnowing of young go-getters desperate for a chance to run one of the mogul’s businesses.

"Trump Revealed"
“Trump Revealed”Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Trump didn’t watch reality TV and didn’t much like what he’d heard about it. “That was for the bottom-feeders of society,” Trump said. And he was worried that the show would take too much of his time. Burnett assured Trump that he could devote just a few hours to each episode, and the show could be made entirely inside Trump Tower. Despite his concerns about time, Trump was immediately taken with the show’s potentially enormous promotional value. “My jet’s going to be in every episode,” he said. “The Taj is going to be featured. Even if it doesn’t get ratings, it’s still going to be great for my brand.” Trump saw the show as 3a bridge to a new market, a new audience, and especially to young people. Burnett pressed Trump on the power of TV to shape reputations: Trump had been famous for more than a generation, but a TV show of his own would allow him to mold his image as never before, giving Americans the chance to see him in a way they perceived as unmediated. Without a show of one’s own, Burnett believed, a celebrity is but a product of editors’ headlines and journalists’ takes. Being the star of a show would let Trump remake himself as he saw fit.

The pitch was an instant hit. Burnett walked out of that first meeting with a handshake deal to make The Apprentice. Trump secured not only a starring role on a show made by TV’s hottest producer but also 50 percent ownership of it. Trump had consulted no one, done no research. He liked the idea; he bought it. It was a classic Trump moment, an example of the gut-instinct decision making that he had proudly touted throughout his career. Buy a show. Win an audience. Burnish an image. “It’s very easy,” Trump said.

But first, the show needed a home. And a Trump TV show struck many in Hollywood as a pretty dumb idea. Even Trump’s own agent told him The Apprentice was a loser—business shows never work on TV, he said. (Trump said he fired the agent shortly thereafter: “If I would have listened to him, I wouldn’t have done the show.”) Burnett made the rounds of the networks, pitching The Apprentice. Fox passed on the show, concluding that it was too elitist—Trump didn’t seem like a TV star, and the contestants were too highbrow, products of fancy educations, and therefore too difficult for average American viewers to connect with emotionally.

ABC had once tried to recruit Trump to a different reality show, in which cameras would follow him around as he made deals with politicians and contractors. Trump hated the idea; he thought it was too much of an intrusion into his business and wouldn’t make for good TV. Now, ABC executives liked the pitch for The Apprentice, but negotiations bogged down over price. Burnett knew how much money he needed per episode and wasn’t about to chip away at the concept. CBS wanted the show, too, but Trump was angry at the network for deciding not to pick up the option on the Miss USA and Miss Universe beauty pageants, which he owned until 2015.

The Celebrity Apprentice - Season 8 Donald Trump Jr., and Donald Trump in season 8 of “The Celebrity Apprentice.”Ali Goldstein — NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

NBC wanted The Apprentice even before Burnett made the pitch—not because of Trump, but because of Burnett’s success with Survivor. To the network’s decision makers, Trump was just one more iconic businessman. He’d be fine on the show, but so would moguls such as Richard Branson or Mark Cuban. But two key executives—Jeff Zucker, then president of NBC Entertainment, and Jeff Gaspin, who ran reality programming for the network and was later chairman of NBC Entertainment—were longtime New Yorkers who had watched firsthand as the city’s tabloids developed covering Trump into a symbiotic, profitable industry. They shared the belief that there was more to Trump than people outside the New York area might know. And if they were wrong about Trump, they figured, Apprentice might survive anyway. The concept NBC bought envisioned Trump as host for only one year. The idea was to have a different mogul as the star each season. Trump was to be followed by Branson, Cuban, and Martha Stewart, the home-furnishings billionaire who had not yet been convicted and imprisoned for obstructing justice and lying about a stock sale.

That notion fell by the wayside during the taping of the first episode. The script for The Apprentice called for the host to play a relatively modest role. The show was about the contestants—and more than 215,000 people had signed up to become one of the first sixteen candidates on the show, living in a faux-apartment set that Burnett had built on the same floor of Trump Tower as the boardroom set (the elevator that contestants would be seen taking “up to the boardroom” was just one more piece of showbiz). Trump was to introduce the challenge that contestants faced at the start of each episode, then appear in a brief boardroom scene at the end, when he would decide which contestant had performed poorly and would not return the next week.

Trump took to his TV role as if he’d spent his life preparing for it. The taping went on for nearly three hours, well longer than planned. A couple of days later, when NBC executives screened rough cuts of the boardroom scenes, they were unanimous: the show’s script needed to be revised. Trump’s scenes were gold. “After the first episode,” Gaspin recalled, “we said we want more Trump.”

So did the viewers, 20 million of whom tuned in to the first episode—an audience that would build to 27 million by the end of that first season. The show was built as a virtually nonstop advertisement for the Trump empire and lifestyle, complete with an opening montage that contrasted Trump in his limo with an image of a homeless man on a bench. “I’m the largest real estate developer in New York,” Trump’s voice-over boasted. “I own buildings all over the place. Model agencies, the Miss Universe pageant, jetliners, golf courses, casinos, and private resorts like Mar-a-Lago. . . . I’ve mastered the art of the deal and have turned the name Trump into the highest-quality brand. And as the master, I want to pass along some of my knowledge to somebody else.”

What would become the show’s catchphrase, “You’re fired,” was not scripted. Although TV reality shows generally follow a detailed outline, Trump made clear from the start that he intended to just wing it. He didn’t like the idea of memorizing lines. He would read the outline for the episode ahead of time, but once the camera was rolling, he would improvise his part, just as he always had at speaking engagements. In the first boardroom scene, when it came time for Trump to decide which finalist would not return the next week, he blurted, “You’re fired.” Backstage, the production crew immediately cheered the line, cementing its place in future episodes.

But although “You’re fired” became a symbol of Trump’s blunt toughness, he didn’t deliver the line in a sneering or gloating fashion. In fact, Trump often seemed to find it difficult to summarily oust a member of the cast. He would pause uncomfortably and soften his voice just before he sacked a contestant, and he frequently consulted with the two managers he had at his side in those scenes, often accepting their advice even when his own views ran in a different direction.

Trump’s performance style on the show evolved quickly. During the filming of the first episode, he seemed to know in his gut which contestant should be fired and saw little reason for a prolonged discussion. But an immediate ouster did not make for compelling television, so producers asked their famously impatient star to slow down and let the drama play out between the contestants battling for the grand prize of a one-year, $250,000 job with the Trump Organization. Trump took the advice and quickly learned to milk the contestants, letting their anguish and embarrassment in the moment of decision play out in extended scenes that viewers found impossible to stop watching. “Trump used no teleprompters, no cues,” said Andy Dean, a contestant during the second season who went on to become president of Trump Productions.

A sign advertising the television show 'The Apprentice' hangs at Trump Towers in 2004. A sign advertising the television show ‘The Apprentice’ hangs at Trump Towers in 2004.Peter Kramer — Getty Images

Over fourteen seasons as the show’s host and executive producer, Trump got plenty of practice honing a blunt speaking style accentuated by short, declarative sentences; delivering taunts—sometimes playful, sometimes searing—of the finalists; and captivating the audience with a theatrical sense of timing. Trump took pride in his stage skills. “I’ve never had lessons,” he said. He traced his knack for theater to his mother, who he said had a natural talent for performance. “I’ve always felt comfortable in front of a camera. Either you’re good at it or you’re not good at it.”

The show’s first seasons featured sixteen to eighteen contestants, selected after in-person interviews, standardized testing, and psychological and medical evaluations. The contenders saw Trump mainly when he assigned them tasks and later in the wood-paneled boardroom, where the showdowns were every bit as tense off camera as they appeared to be on TV.

In those scenes—two or three hours under the unforgiving heat of TV lights and the eye of the man whose patronage they sought—the contestants saw a talented performer who was deeply concerned with how he was perceived by others. Trump was as consumed by ratings as he would later be about campaign poll numbers. “He is obsessed with metrics, polls and data,” said Sam Solovey, the first-season contestant who, upon being fired, delivered a searing glare that became a pop sensation.

On a morning after The Apprentice lost the ratings race to a rival Fox show, American Idol, Solovey visited Trump to introduce him to his fiancée—and found the usually ebullient businessman slumped at his desk. “It was the only time I saw him totally downcast and dejected,” said Solovey, who soon after that meeting signed on with the Trump Organization to help rally Apprentice’s ratings and bolster Trump’s brand by appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show, promoting the Miss Universe pageant, and hustling Trump’s latest book.

When Elizabeth Jarosz, a second-season contestant who later became a brand strategy consultant, once stood near Trump as he finished a press interview, she was surprised when he turned to her and asked, “How did I do? Was that okay?”

“Wow,” Jarosz thought. “He was very insecure.” Another time, Jarosz sat with Trump at a bar as he explained his view that “all publicity is good publicity. . . . When people get tired of you is when you do more publicity, because that’s when you become an icon.”

Although NBC marketed Trump’s Apprentice character as tough and ballsy, the show’s producers and Trump’s public relations advisers saw a character emerging on the show who artfully blended his love of power with a glimmer of humility, a touch of self-deprecating humor, and an unexpected willingness to cede to the expertise of others. NBC public relations chief Jim Dowd, who later handled publicity for Trump directly, spent many hours with Trump during the show’s first weeks and watched as the star crafted a new public persona: “He was tempering himself and didn’t want to come across as a villain. He always says everything he does is yuuge, yuuge, yuuge. But his feet were on the ground on this. He was nervous about the ratings. He kept asking, ‘Is this going to work?’ ”

The line between Trump the character and Trump the person had been fuzzy for decades. Writing in the New Yorker years earlier, Mark Singer had portrayed Trump as a “hyperbole addict who prevaricates for fun and profit,” the proprietor of a long-running, glittery, but ultimately dishonest and empty show. Singer concluded that Trump had “achieved the ultimate luxury, an existence unmolested by the rumblings of a soul.” Trump didn’t like Singer’s harsh critique, but often referred to himself as a “ratings machine.”

Trump’s image-molders now saw Apprentice as a chance to present him as a more authentic, nuanced person than the glitz-obsessed, ego-first character Americans knew from tabloid headlines and TV cameos. Trump himself initially saw the show as a brand extension and took advantage of his Apprentice success to plaster his name on ties, suits, fragrance (Success by Trump), water, lamps, and a credit card. “Donald calculates the brand awareness,” Burnett said. “He’s a showman.”

“Donald does everything for a reason,” Dowd said.

The Celebrity Apprentice - Season 12 “The Celebrity Apprentice” season 12 castMithcel Haaseth — NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The success of his TV show renewed questions about which aspects of Trump’s public persona reflected his true self and which were pure showmanship. Trump sometimes scoffed at the idea that he’d created a separate or different character that he played on the public stage, and he sometimes insisted that things he said on TV were intended just to provoke or entertain. In Time to Get Tough, a book he published in 2011, Trump wrote that he did The Apprentice “not for the money, mind you, but because it creates such a powerful brand presence and is a lot of fun to do.” But Trump later said he decided to do the program for a simple, mercenary reason: because “it’s lucrative, even if you’re rich. It’s an amazing thing, you never get tired of that.” (Trump started out making $100,000 per episode for his performance; of course, he also owned half of the show.)

Whichever motivation was more important to him, Trump believed that The Apprentice let Americans see him as more humane, more complicated than just his crumbling marriages, gold-plated surroundings, and constant promotion of his name and identity. The show made Americans realize that “I’m highly educated,” Trump once said, “which until The Apprentice most people didn’t know. They thought I was a barbarian.”

“I do have great feelings for people,” Trump said. “But I became more popular by being on a show where I fire people. It’s weird. I am an honest person. People understand you have to do what you have to do. Michael Douglas said I’m the best actor on television. I said, ‘I’m not acting. This is who I am.’ ”

Apprentice changed Trump’s trajectory almost immediately. On the morning after the premiere, Dowd accompanied Trump as he made the rounds of Manhattan TV studios for nine interviews promoting the show. Dowd witnessed the making of a star: “People on the street embraced him. He was mobbed. And all of a sudden, there was none of the old mocking, the old New York Post image of him with the wives and the parties. He was a hero and he had not been one before. He told me, ‘I’ve got the real estate and hotel and golf niche, I’ve got the name recognition, but I don’t have the love and respect of Middle America.’ Now he did. That was the bridge to the [2016] campaign.”

As The Apprentice gained audience, Trump became more involved in both the production of the program and its promotion. With each passing week, he grew more serious about the show, devoted more time to it, and became a close student of its audience demographics. “He really ate it up,” Gaspin said. “He didn’t necessarily take it seriously at first, but when he gets traction, he puts everything into it. . . . He just loved, loved being a TV star.” The show’s audience diminished sharply in later seasons, especially when the network added a version of Apprentice starring Martha Stewart (her show premiered six months after she was released from prison). When Stewart’s Apprentice was canceled after one season, Trump wrote her a nasty note: “Your performance was terrible. . . . Be careful or I will do a syndicated daytime show, perhaps called ‘The Boardroom,’ and further destroy the meager ratings you already have!”

As soon as Apprentice hit the top ten in its first season, Trump was in demand on talk shows as never before. Dowd booked Trump on Don Imus’s morning radio gabfest every week for a year and a half. The appearances were initially meant to promote the TV show, but almost immediately, Trump started talking politics. The people who made The Apprentice with Trump didn’t think he would ever really run for office, but they recall his drawing a direct line from the show’s success to the possibility that he’d shoot for the nation’s top job. Burnett said, “Donald mentioned a number of times, ‘Maybe I’ll run for president one day.’ ”

The Apprentice turned Trump from a blowhard Richie Rich who had just gone through his most difficult decade into an unlikely symbol of straight talk, an evangelist for the American gospel of success, a decider who insisted on standards in a country that had somehow slipped into handing out trophies for just showing up. Before Trump, the rule book for reality shows said that TV should be positive and inspiring, not negative. But Trump changed those rules, Gaspin said. Trump, like American Idol’s Simon Cowell, could be simultaneously inspiring and negative—a politically incorrect truth teller. “Donald was about honesty; he was tough but truthful,” Gaspin said. “He wasn’t saying you were good at your job when you weren’t.” And although the show’s loyal viewers delighted in Trump’s blunt, decisive style—and in the way he humiliated some losing contestants—fans of The Apprentice also saw Trump as a billionaire with a heart, at times playful and unexpectedly willing to change his mind.

Above all, Apprentice sold an image of the host-boss as supremely competent and confident, dispensing his authority and getting immediate results. The analogy to politics was palpable, and Burnett saw it in action as the show’s format was franchised to several dozen other countries around the world. Increasingly, the hosts of the foreign editions of Apprentice were celebrities with political aspirations. “Nobody is missing this,” Burnett said.

The show’s creator came to believe that if Trump ever ran for president, it wouldn’t be a result of The Apprentice, but without The Apprentice there could be no candidacy: “People want to hear the unvarnished, that same style that he showed on The Apprentice . . . the ability to speak his mind clearly and not tone down his voice in a politically correct, TV way.”

All-Star Celebrity Apprentice - Season 13 Donald Trump on season 13 of the All Star Celebrity Apprentice live finale.Virginia Sherwood — NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Trump initially resisted the idea that The Apprentice played an important role in inspiring both his decision to run and the electorate’s interest in his campaign. He noted how well-known he was before the show premiered. Unprompted, he reeled off his ratings on other TV shows, the magazines whose covers he’d graced, the bestselling books he’d written. But then he pivoted and said that the reality show “was a different level of adulation, or respect, or celebrity. That really went to a different level. I’m running to really make America great again, but the celebrity helped, that’s true.”

At the least, The Apprentice fed Trump’s hunger for public recognition. Gaspin saw “some sort of huge need for public validation” from his star. “He would call me every day: ‘How are the ratings?’ He’s fueled by it.” Looking back years later, some of the show’s top executives saw Trump’s move toward elective politics as an effort to re-create those heady first months of public adulation that followed Apprentice’s premiere. “The show was magic, and that’s what he’s trying to recapture,” Dowd said.

As The Apprentice’s numbers soared, Trump explored ways to extend his TV brand. In 2007, Fox announced that Trump would be executive producer of a show to be called Lady or a Tramp, a reality competition in which “rude and crude party girls” would be sent to charm school to get a strict reeducation on manners. In the wake of Britney Spears’s shaving her head and Lindsay Lohan’s and Paris Hilton’s snaring headlines for all the wrong reasons, Trump would reprise his Apprentice role as judge, evaluating the contestants’ progress. The show was never made.

Trump also proposed that a network create a dramatic series based on his life and work. To be called The Tower, the idea was for it to be The West Wing of the real estate development world, with a main character who aspires to excellence, craves winning, and is out to build the tallest building in the world. Gay Walch, a Hollywood TV writer hired to create a pilot for the series, wrote a character who was larger-than-life and had a complicated family, with two adult children and an ex-wife all working for him. She borrowed scenes from Trump’s books, including the clever ruse he once deployed in Atlantic City to impress potential investors by having a crew move dirt around to make an idle construction site look active.

When Walch met with Trump about The Tower, he didn’t object to any of her work, not even when the Trump-like character was less than scrupulous. “He was very respectful of my creative process,” she said. “It wasn’t like things had to be his way. He was a confident listener, acutely listening.” Trump gave the writer only one note: he wanted the main character’s last name to be Barron. No problem, Walch said. The Tower would be the story of John Barron—the name Trump had used for years when he called news outlets with tips for stories about Donald Trump. The Tower was never produced—it just wasn’t great, network executives said.

In 2015, when Trump was fourteen years into the run of The Apprentice, NBC announced that it was removing him as host of the program “due to the recent derogatory statements by Donald Trump regarding immigrants.” (In reply, Trump blasted the network, saying it was “so weak and so foolish to not understand the serious illegal immigration problem.”) Even after he became a presidential candidate, Trump loved the idea of retaining a regular presence on primetime TV.

He said he’d still like to make The Tower. “Depending on what happens with this thing, I’d like to do that,” he said in 2016. “Of course, if this goes all the way, I can’t do it. I won’t have the time. And it wouldn’t be appropriate.” Trump clearly relished talking about Apprentice, but he had to get on a plane. Before he got off the phone, though, he had a question for the reporter on the other end of the line. “So Schwarzenegger’s going to do The Apprentice,” Trump said. “You think he’ll be good? I hope he’s good. He was in politics. So maybe he can do this, too.”

Going back to his first appearances on Page Six of the New York Post, on The Howard Stern Show, and on Barbara Walters’s celebrity interviews, Trump always took pride in knowing how to win attention for himself, knowing how to feed the media’s insatiable appetite for stories about wealth, sex, and controversy—and ideally, all three blended together. Dabbling with investments in Broadway shows and making cameo appearances on TV sitcoms and in movies seemed like novelties, good for a quick injection of celebrity juice. The Apprentice, however, was a sustained development of a character, a powerful mainline into the American consciousness, an essential bridge on the journey from builder to politician. It was only a matter of time before he would use his showmanship not only to sell condos and fill hotel rooms, but to expand his brand into a dazzling array of fields.

Excerpted from TRUMP REVEALED by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher. Copyright c 2016 by WP Company LLC. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.