Why Donald Trump’s ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ Gig Raises Conflict of Interest Questions

Donald Trump attends "Celebrity Apprentice" Red Carpet Event at Trump Tower on Jan. 20, 2015 in New York City.
Donald Trump attends "Celebrity Apprentice" Red Carpet Event at Trump Tower on Jan. 20, 2015 in New York City.
Rob Kim Getty Images

Donald Trump starts his new job next month, but it’s the President-elect’s part-time gig that is causing controversy this week.

A Trump spokesperson confirmed on Thursday that the former reality television host will still serve as an executive producer on the upcoming season of Comcast-owned NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice. It will be hosted by movie star and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Trump left the show to run for president in 2015.

For weeks now, ethics experts have been pressing Donald Trump to disentangle himself from his business interests in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest. The fact that Trump will have a significant business interest in a reality TV show while in office and would be in business with media giants only breathed life into those real concerns.

Both NBC and MGM, which holds the majority stake in Apprentice-owner Mark Burnett Productions, have declined to comment on Trump’s compensation as executive producer. Variety reported that it was “likely to be in the low five-figures, at minimum” per episode of The Celebrity Apprentice and said that his fees would be paid by MGM, not NBC. Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks told Fortune in a statement: “Mr. Trump has a big stake in the show and conceived of it with [reality show creator] Mark Burnett.”

Media critics also note that the arrangement raises thorny issues for NBC.


Even if the network is not directly compensating Trump, the reality show creates a shared business interest for the network and Trump, which could potentially bring about a conflict with parent company NBCUniversal’s many news media outlets that will cover the Trump administration.

In fact, the whole situation puts NBC in a precarious situation, highlighting the network’s cozy relationship with Trump. The network had publicly announced it would sever its business ties with Trump following the derogatory comments he made about Mexican immigrants in June 2015. That decision led to NBC replacing Trump with Schwarzenegger as the host of The Celebrity Apprentice and it also resulted in a lawsuit brought against the company by the then-presidential candidate. (Trump later settled legal matters.)

But, despite the legal battle and NBC disavowing Trump’s campaign rhetoric, the network invited him to host its tentpole late-night program Saturday Night Live last fall—a decision for which NBC took some heat at the time. And, more recently Trump has regularly slammed SNL, calling it “unfunny” and “unwatchable,” now that the show regularly features actor Alec Baldwin portraying the president-elect as a buffoon.

NBC was also criticized earlier this year for reportedly sitting on the Access Hollywood footage from 2005 that showed Trump boasting about committing sexual assault. The footage eventually leaked and created one of the election’s biggest scandals, and NBC reportedly waited on releasing it out of fear of spurring yet another lawsuit from Trump, who did, in fact, threaten legal action after the tape leaked.

Mark Burnett, the reality TV producer who created the Apprentice franchise with Trump, also was criticized for not releasing behind-the-scenes Apprentice tapes, but Burnett claimed he was contractually unable to do so and wasn’t protecting Trump. Burnett even ripped into the “hatred, division and misogyny” of Trump’s campaign.

Yet, it appears Burnett and Trump are still chummy, and now Burnett is providing ideas for Trump’s inauguration next month.

Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, has tried to dismiss all of the controversy over Trump working on a reality-TV show as president. She compared it to other presidents’ taking time off to play golf and said Trump would be working on the series in his “spare time.”

Donald Trump has said he will hold a press conference on December 15 to reveal plans to remove himself from his businesses. But so far he has given no details. Trump hasn’t had a press conference since July 27th.

A bipartisan group made up of ethics experts released an open letter Friday, advising Trump that if he puts his children in charge of his businesses, as he has indicated he will do, he will not be addressing those conflicts. “This will not solve the real or apparent conflict of interest problems you face as president,” the group wrote.

Some of Trump’s fans also have noted on Twitter that Obama had earned royalties from books he’d written. The royalties Obama earned were for books written before he entered the White House; Obama donated all of the proceeds from a 2010 children’s book he wrote to charity.

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