As Donald Trump stood in the lobby of Trump Tower on Thursday afternoon and announced that, after much hesitation and taunting of the American conservative electorate, he solemnly swears to the Republican National Committee that he won’t run as a third-party candidate, his biggest defender prepared to dutifully sing his praises on television.
“Well, I think that the fact that they actually asked him to sign the loyalty pledge just shows the strength of Donald Trump and just the sort of threat that he is,” Katrina Campins remarked on CNN following Trump’s press conference. “What I love about Donald Trump is he stands firm in his truth. It’s really the first time in a long time that I’m proud to say I’m an American.”
Under normal circumstances, Campins would make an unlikely political pundit. She is a self-described “real estate mogul” who lives in Miami but lists her location on Twitter and Facebook as “Peace Within.” She is one of the few candidate surrogates who has a topless photo on the Internet. Her ambition, judging by her personal website, is to build a lifestyle brand. But she possesses a unique qualification: She knows Trump, having been a contestant on Season 1 of The Apprentice, the reality show that helped to cement the Republican frontrunner’s mainstream celebrity.
While Trump has found myriad defenders on talk radio, where conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham who echo Trump’s anti-immigrant beliefs rule the conversation, among the Beltway pundit class he has few fans of equal prominence willing to come to his aid.
To make up for this, he’s enlisted the most Trump-like surrogates imaginable: Reality TV celebrities he created himself.
In January 2004, The Apprentice premiered on NBC. The premise was simple: New York’s most successful real estate magnate would attempt to find a suitable young person with entrepreneurial spirit to whom he could pass the torch, a one-year contract as the leader of one of his companies, and a $250,000 salary, like a transparent Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Sitting in the back of a limousine, Trump introduced himself in the show’s first episode. “I’m the largest real estate developer in New York,” he bragged. He got out of his limousine and stepped into a Trump-branded helicopter. “As the master, I want to pass along my knowledge to somebody else…Who will succeed, and who will fail? Who will be The Apprentice?”
Not Katrina Campins, it turned out.
“I’m Katrina Campins,” she told the reality TV-viewing public as she walked dramatically into the lobby of Trump Tower in the same episode, “and I rank in the top 3 percent of Realtors nationwide and I’m 23 years old.” The camera cut to Campins standing next to a wrought-iron gate outside a mansion she presumably sold. By the spring, after insinuating that two fellow contestants were having an affair and complaining about being cast as a “sexpot,” Campins was booted from the show.
But she stayed in touch with Trump after her Apprentice days ended and, in 2014, she joined Trump International Realty.
In an interview after her CNN appearance on Thursday, Campins told me she didn’t learn much about real estate from America’s future president, but she learned something very valuable: “the art of branding.”
“He definitely taught me the importance of branding and marketing,” she said. “He’s a master brander. I mean, perfect example now: He doesn’t have to pay for all his press. It’s just free press. Nobody can compete with that.”
Campins has appeared on CNN “probably like five or six times” since Trump’s June announcement, she guessed. “I do it, like, once or twice a week depending on the topic.”
She has defended Trump against charges of racism and misogyny, and attempted to explain away his off-color comments.
As a Cuban-American woman, she often says, she just thinks Trump’s statements have been “misconstrued” by the media.
Asked plainly if he is a racist, she told me “no.” Asked if he is hateful, she said the same thing.
As for Trump’s feelings about women, she complained that the horrible things Trump said about Rosie O’Donnell (that she is a “pig,” for starters) were not the Real Trump, and the media should know the difference between when he is being real and when he is just doing something for entertainment’s sake. “That was Trump the entertainer speaking,” she explained. He wouldn’t say that now, she said, while running for office.
When I noted that Trump had also said horrible things about Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly, not only recently but while a candidate for office, Campins said, “That’s the media” making something into nothing.
Trump hadn’t really suggested that Kelly might be menstruating when she asked him tough questions at the debate, Campins told me. “I think it was a boxing—uh, he was referring to a term in boxing and everything got turned around.”
Campins is not paid by CNN, she’s quick to point out, and says she actually has a lot to lose by voicing her support for Trump publicly. She also contends that she is not benefiting monetarily from Trump, despite working for Trump International Realty. “I’m an independent contractor,” she replied icily when I brought it up. “I have my own brand. I don’t need anybody else’s brand, you understand?”
On August 10, Trump tweeted at Campins, “Thank you so much for the wonderful statements you made about me on TV. Also, keep up the great work!” She replied, “My pleasure. I’m just speaking the truth.” She included as punctuation two emoji: a happy blushing face and hands-folded-in-prayer.
Campins says she doesn’t care about generating attention for herself. Still, when I mention that Trump tweeted at her once, she corrects me, saying: “Well, he tweeted twice, and every time I go on air, basically, just appreciation for standing behind what I believe, which is very much in line with what he believes. You know, loyalty is very big to Trump, and it’s very big to me.”
Campins—who has the tagline “CENTERED IN GOD” on her website and posts selfies on Instagram captioned “namaste”—says she believes talking up Trump’s candidacy and explaining away his comments, like that undocumented Mexican immigrants are “rapists,” is noble work. “I’m a voice,” she told me. “If I can speak for those Americans who don’t have a voice, more power to it. It’s not about me. I wish more people used media that way. That’s what media is to me. It’s an instrument to vocalize important messaging.”
Campins told me she and Trump talk, but not about what she says on TV. “I speak from my heart,” she said. “Nobody tells me what to say.” She wouldn’t reveal what, exactly, they discuss, saying only, “That’s no one’s business.”
Trump’s dominance of the Republican primary field—a Monmouth University poll released Thursday shows him with 30 percent support nationally—has turned the entire democratic process into a cross between a reality show and a horror movie.
Trump is, in words so often uttered by reality TV contestants, not here to make friends. He thrives on and constantly produces conflict, which makes for terrific television. On Thursday alone, for example, he picked fights with Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Chris Christie.
In a political universe where going off-script in any way is seen as potential suicide and giving the press anything to work with that hasn’t been vetted by consultants and pollsters and psychics and who knows who else is a risk, Trump just doesn’t care. He is rewarded for his recklessness with around-the-clock cable news coverage and untold numbers of reporters, like this one, devoting thousands of words to his exploits.
“There is no malice in Donald Trump’s heart,” Omarosa Manigault, another Apprentice Season 1 star, told me. Manigault was Campins’s roommate on the show and calls her “my kitty cat.” The pair appeared on CNN together recently to defend Trump.
“He’s not a misogynist and he’s not a racist,” Manigault, who is a Democrat and worked in the Bill Clinton White House, said. And he’s not, she argued, responsible for turning the Republican primary into reality TV. “He didn’t do that. Let’s go back to Howard Dean, let’s go back to Barack Obama,” she laughed. When people say “reality TV,” she told me, she thinks they’re talking about “culture with a lowercase ‘c.’”
And if we’re talking about lowbrow culture, what about Ronald Reagan? “They thought he was trivial. The things that people are saying about Donald Trump are very similar to what they said about Ronald Reagan and Jesse Ventura and Sonny Bono,” Manigault noted.
All that said, Manigault doesn’t know whether she would vote for Trump were he to win the Republican nomination. “It comes with so much weight,” she said of casting a vote for president. “This is the most important position in the world!”
But “he sent me a tweet last week. My timeline went crazy!”