The Most Consequential TV Show in History

In a CNN interview shortly after launching his presidential campaign in 2015, Donald Trump told a skeptical Jake Tapper that he was “in it to win it” and boasted, “I’m giving up hundreds of millions of dollars to do this. I’m giving up a prime-time television show.” In fact, according to a new book, Trump wasn’t quite as confident as he claimed. For at least six months after he entered the race, he insisted on keeping the set for The Apprentice intact on the 14th floor of Trump Tower—if the whole presidential-campaign thing didn’t work out, at least it would generate good publicity for the next season of The Celebrity Apprentice. “There was a cognizant decision to leave the boardroom,” Trump’s son Eric told the book’s author, “and there was a possibility of it coming back.” When the set was eventually torn down, campaign staffers took over the floor.

This almost-too-perfect metaphor for the melding of Trump’s reality-TV and political careers appears in Apprentice in Wonderland, by the entertainment journalist Ramin Setoodeh. The book comes out later this month; I obtained an early copy.

It is by now a truism of the Trump era that the 45th president rose to power in large part thanks to the persona he popularized on The Apprentice, which he hosted from 2004 to 2015. Few readers will be surprised to learn that the character he played on the show—the tough-but-fair executive who doles out savvy business advice and decisively fires underperforming employees—was more reality-TV invention than reality. But the book’s peek behind the scenes of what is arguably the most consequential television show in history is still revealing. In Setoodeh’s look back at the series, Trump, a man who has now served in the most powerful office in the world, shows himself to be thoroughly steeped in the tawdry, lowbrow celebrity culture of the aughts—a culture that remains influential on his politics.

That the former president cooperated so extensively for a book about his reality-TV career is telling. According to an author’s note at the end of the book, Trump granted Setoodeh six interviews, four of them in person. That’s more than Trump has given to most of the people writing books about his presidency. Setoodeh writes that the interviews sometimes went on for hours, and that his subject seemed to thrill at watching old clips of the show. On the day Trump’s sister died in November 2023, Setoodeh assumed their scheduled interview would be canceled. But Trump proceeded as planned, alternating between taking personal phone calls and recounting old episodes of The Celebrity Apprentice to Setoodeh in the Mar-a-Lago living room. “In our days together,” Setoodeh writes, “Trump is happiest when he talks about The Apprentice and crankiest when he relives his years as the commander in chief.”

The premise of The Apprentice was straightforward. On each episode, a cast of aspiring “employees,” who were divided into teams, competed in business-oriented challenges, after which Trump summoned the losing team to a boardroom and grilled them on their failures. At the end, he’d send a contestant home with his famous catchphrase: “You’re fired.”

The boardroom scenes became known for high drama and vitriolic sniping, and according to Setoodeh, Trump thrived on pitting the contestants against one another. The author reports that the dynamic was built into the set design, which placed Trump’s chair on a platform, allowing him to lord over the contestants competing for his approval. He hectored, humiliated, and bullied them—and only a small fraction of the interactions wound up on air. With Trump in charge, the filming of the boardroom scenes sometimes stretched on for hours, Setoodeh writes, leaving contestants exhausted and disoriented.

Trump also casually deployed racial division for entertainment, according to several contestants. In 2005, he publicly floated a segregated season of The Apprentice, in which “a team of successful African Americans” would compete against “a team of successful whites.” He argued at the time, “Whether people like that idea or not, it is somewhat reflective of our very vicious world.” The idea never came to fruition. But Setoodeh quotes Black contestants who say the show’s racial politics were already retrograde enough, and that they were rooted in Trump’s personal views.

Tara Dowdell, who appeared on Season 3, recalls producers trying to goad her during interviews into acting angry: “They wanted me to be a stereotype of a Black woman,” she told Setoodeh. Randall Pinkett, a Rhodes Scholar and the first Black winner of The Apprentice, is quoted as saying, “I think Donald’s a racist. And I think he consciously and unconsciously and deliberately cast Black people in a negative light.” In the show’s first season, Omarosa Manigault, who was the lone Black woman in the cast and later went on to serve in the Trump White House, was depicted as so cartoonishly dishonest and manipulative that her name became shorthand in the reality-TV industry for “villain.”

In response to an email detailing several of the claims in Setoodeh’s book, Steven Cheung, the communications director for Trump’s 2024 campaign, wrote, “These completely fabricated accusations and bullshit story was already peddled in 2016 and thoroughly debunked. Nobody took it seriously then, and they won’t now, because it’s fake news. Now that Crooked Joe Biden and the Democrats are losing the election, and President Trump continues to dominate, they are bringing up old fake stories from the past because they are desperate.”

The accusation of racism that has proved most persistent is the rumor that Trump was caught on a hot mic using the N-word during a taping of The Apprentice. Manigault said in 2018 that she’d heard a tape of Trump using the slur. Mark Burnett, the series creator, told Setoodeh it wasn’t true. Last week, Bill Pruitt, a former producer on the series, revived the allegation with an essay in Slate, writing that Trump, while discussing the contestant Kwame Jackson, asked aloud, “I mean, would America buy a n— winning?” In an interview with Setoodeh, Trump repeatedly denies that any tapes exist of him using what he calls “the race word.”

“Number one, it’s a word that I’ve never used. I’ve never used it in my life!” Trump says, before adding, “Would I use it when the mics are all hot? The mics were always hot.”

Apprentice in Wonderland also offers new details about the experience of being a woman on the set. It is perhaps not shocking that Trump—who brags in the book that he made the Miss Universe swimsuit competition skimpier by introducing bikinis—objectified female Apprentice contestants. One challenge that involved creating a customized shopping experience at Home Depot, Setoodeh writes, spawned a rumor among contestants that Trump had told one of them, Erin Elmore, “I’ll show you my nine-inch power tool.” (Elmore, who later became a Republican strategist and Trump-campaign surrogate, tells Setoodeh it didn’t happen.) And when Trump was alone with the male contestants in Season 4, Pinkett says, the host talked about how much he wanted to have sex with Jennifer Murphy, a 26-year-old beauty queen who was another cast member.

Murphy herself offers a detailed description of her various encounters with Trump. At first, she tells Setoodeh, the relationship was like that of a mentor and protégée. “I think he looked at me in a way like he does his daughter,” Murphy says. “But also, I did think he had the hots for me a bit.” She says that Trump unexpectedly kissed her one day while she was waiting for an elevator, and that on another occasion he invited her to his room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She declined the invitation because he was married to his current wife, Melania. “I have a conscience,” Murphy tells Setoodeh. “I have integrity. I made up a reason I was busy.”

Murphy says she that wasn’t offended by Trump’s advances, and that she didn’t consider him a predator: “I think, if anything, he likes beautiful women too much—if that’s a flaw.” The two remained friends. When she got engaged to a celebrity dentist in 2006, Murphy recounts, Trump let her hold the wedding at one of his properties at a discount. He also joined her in filming an Access Hollywood segment about the nuptials. But at one point during the filming, she says, Trump pulled her aside and asked her why she was marrying her fiancé. “He put his arm around me,” Murphy tells Setoodeh. “It was off camera. I think he smacked my butt a little. I was like, ‘Goodness gracious!’”

Trump’s vulgar behavior wasn’t limited to backstage. During a Season 4 boardroom scene that made it to air, Setoodeh writes, Trump asked the 22-year-old contestant Adam Israelov if he’d ever had sex. Israelov said he wasn’t comfortable answering the question, but Trump wouldn’t let it go. “How can you be afraid to talk about sex? Sex is, like, not a big deal. How can you be afraid?” Trump kept pushing. “Listen, Adam isn’t good with sex. He might be in ten years, but right now you don’t feel comfortable with sex. Do you agree with it? Someday, you will. It’s gotten me into a lot of trouble, Adam. It’s cost me a lot of money.” (This was nearly two decades before Trump would be convicted on 34 felony counts related to a hush-money payment to an adult-film actor.)

Another moment of candor came during a meal in 2004 with the publishing executive Steve Forbes, who made a cameo on the show. Alex Thomason, a contestant, tells Setoodeh that he heard Trump critique Forbes’s failed presidential bids in 1996 and 2000. “You went overboard on this pro-life nonsense,” Thomason recalls Trump telling him.

By 2008, ratings for The Apprentice had fallen off dramatically enough that NBC needed a new gimmick, and The Celebrity Apprentice was born. According to Setoodeh, Trump wasn’t wild at first about surrounding himself with other famous people—he wanted to be the only celebrity on the show—but a network executive eventually warmed him up to the idea of lording over a boardroom full of C-listers. As Trump reflects on those seasons, though, he seems consumed primarily by how many of his celebrity friends have since abandoned him.

Speaking with Setoodeh, Trump neatly divides all of Hollywood into two categories—pro-Trump and anti-Trump—and shifts his assessments accordingly. (If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s also how he talks about politicians.)

Tom Brady? When they were friends, Trump hailed the star quarterback as “a great winner” on the campaign trail. But after Brady visited the Biden White House and made a joke about election deniers, Trump was done with him. “He recommended crypto. That’s bad!” Trump tells Setoodeh. “Because he lost like $200 million in them. He was friends with this guy, [Sam] Bankman-Fried, and that’s not a good guy to be friends with right now.” (Brady was a paid “ambassador” for Bankman-Fried’s crypto company and reportedly lost tens of millions of dollars when it went bankrupt.)

Debra Messing? When the actor was (according to Trump, at least) effusively thanking him for saving NBC with his show’s massive ratings, he found her “quite attractive.” But once she became an outspoken critic of his politics, the attraction disappeared: “I watch her today, and it’s like she’s a raving mess.”

Trump seems to reserve special disdain for the Kardashians. He once happily advertised his coziness with reality TV’s most famous family. Kim Kardashian made a guest appearance on The Apprentice, and her sister Khloé was a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice. Years later, when Trump was president, he hosted Kim at the White House and granted clemency to a federal prisoner for whom she’d advocated. But after Biden won the 2020 election, Kim celebrated by posting three blue heart emoji on Twitter—and that was apparently enough for Trump to turn on the whole family.

When Setoodeh mentions Kim, he rants: “She went for Sleepy Joe! Which is incredible to me. Incredible, because I did something that was perhaps important to her.” He dismisses her criminal-justice-reform activism: “Maybe it was just publicity for her. I don’t know.” When Khloé comes up, he says, “I never got along great with Khloé,” and then offers, unprompted, “Khloé was arrested for drunk driving. Did you know that?” (The arrest took place in 2007.) “I think it’s a terrible thing—so many people die with drunk driving. You don’t hear about it, but they do.” Trump even seems to disavow the Kardashians’ parent Caitlyn Jenner, who voted for him in 2016 but later spoke out against what she considered his administration’s transphobic policies. When Setoodeh asks Trump about Jenner, he says blankly, “I don’t know her. I knew Bruce. But I don’t know Caitlyn.”

Trump tells Setoodeh that he seriously considered leaving the show in 2012 to run for president, but that Burnett talked him out of it. “You don’t understand,” Trump recalls Burnett saying. “They’re offering you millions of dollars to be on a show, to be on primetime television.” That this argument won out suggests an answer to the question of which job—Apprentice host or president—Trump considered more prestigious, at least at the time. Still, he says he would have easily beaten Mitt Romney in the Republican primaries and done a better job running against Barack Obama. “He ran a horrible race,” Trump says of the 2012 GOP nominee, who’s since become a vocal Trump critic. “Do you know why? Because he was intimidated by African Americans … He’s a total asshole anyway. He’s a total schmuck.”

Four years later, when Trump finally left, he tried to get his daughter Ivanka installed as the host. Instead, NBC tapped Arnold Schwarzenegger to host The New Celebrity Apprentice, which debuted weeks before Trump was sworn in as president. Speaking with Setoodeh, Trump is gleeful that the show was canceled after one season. He claims that Schwarzenegger was incapable of saying Trump’s catchphrase properly during rehearsals, and so had to come up with his own pale imitation: “You’re terminated.”

“He didn’t have it,” Trump tells Setoodeh with a grin. “The whole thing was, like, ponderous. And I view that as a great compliment to myself.” He adds, “Arnold was a guy, he supported Crooked Hillary, so I didn’t give a shit. He was a [John] Kasich supporter too, which made it even worse. So between Kasich and Hillary, I said, ‘I hope he bombs like a dog,’ and he did.” (A Schwarzenegger spokesperson told me in a statement: “We aren’t going to get into this because we understand that 90% of what he says is untrue,” but added that Schwarzenegger used the phrase “You’re fired” in the 1994 movie True Lies, “years before Donald Trump was a reality star.”)

Setoodeh’s book contains so many anecdotes like this that one can’t help but marvel at how Trump manages to keep his catalog of petty celebrity snubs straight. He might struggle to define nuclear triad, but he can tell you which Apprentice contestants sided with Rosie O’Donnell over him in their 2006 feud. As unsavory as this world might be to some readers, the lessons Trump took from his reality-TV era permeated his presidency. Recall those early scenes from his White House: the boss enthroned behind the Resolute desk, pitting advisers against one another, firing Cabinet officials at will, nursing his grudges and grievances. Many presidential libraries feature replicas of the Oval Office; by the end of Setoodeh’s book, I wondered if Trump’s would include a model of the Apprentice boardroom.

“The show would be a big part of history,” Eric Trump tells Setoodeh. “It’s going to be a big part of his legacy. I hope it will remain a big part of his legacy.”

Apprentice In Wonderland: How Donald Trump And Mark Burnett Took America Through The Looking Glass

By Ramin Setoodeh

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