Reality-TV kingpin Mark Burnett and his associates say that they aren’t pressuring anyone over a series of damaging leaks about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s behavior on The Apprentice. But three show staffers tell The Daily Beast that’s just not so. According to these sources, Burnett’s office has been warning his staff and Apprentice alumni that if they leak Trump-related news or footage to the press, they are putting themselves in dire professional—and possibly legal—danger.
“They’re not dumb enough to put anything in email right now—people in [Burnett’s circle] are on lockdown over this stuff,” one former Apprentice employee said, who spoke of receiving a phone call in the past two weeks. “They didn’t directly ‘threaten’ [legal action]… but the message was clear: Don’t talk to the media, don’t leak to reporters.”
“They don’t know [for sure] that I did [talk to you], but they got in touch,” a second Apprentice staffer, who’d previously talked to The Daily Beast last month on the condition of anonymity because of the multimillion-dollar non-disclosure agreement that person had signed, said on Monday. “Now don’t call me ever again… Thank you.”
Burnett’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Shortly after The Washington Post released a 2005 video of Trump bragging to Billy Bush about being able to get away with sexually assaulting women, a former Apprentice producer named Bill Pruitt tweeted that “as a producer on seasons 1 & 2 of [The Apprentice,] I assure you: when it comes to the #TrumpTapes there are far worse [examples].”
This lone tweet, sent on Oct. 8, led to calls for Burnett, the executive producer and mastermind behind the NBC reality series, to release the archived treasure trove of unaired Apprentice footage featuring Trump. (The tweet also earned Pruitt an immediate flood of death threats and media requests, a source said. Pruitt has not responded to The Daily Beast’s emails seeking comment.)
BuzzFeed ran a story, also on Oct. 8, stating that “Trump-backer Mark Burnett” had “threatened staffers who could release potentially damaging outtakes of the show.” (Burnett “is pro-Trump and has made clear to his teams that he will sue anyone who leaks,” the “source close to” the Apprentice creator told BuzzFeed News.)
As pressure quickly mounted for Burnett to “#ReleaseTheTapes” early last month, the mega-producer issued a joint statement with MGM (the media company that acquired Burnett’s production company for upwards of $500 million and appointed him as head of its TV wing) insisting that he was powerless to help.
“Despite reports to the contrary, Mark Burnett does not have the ability nor the right to release footage or other material from The Apprentice,” read the statement, which noted that Burnett has “consistently supported” Democrats. “Various contractual and legal requirements also restrict MGM’s ability to release such material… [C]laims that Mark Burnett has threatened anyone with litigation if they were to leak such material are completely and unequivocally false.”
According to three sources involved with The Apprentice, Burnett and his people were not being entirely truthful. In recent weeks, in light of continuing Apprentice-era Trump leaks, Burnett’s office has resumed sternly reminding former Apprentice employees of the stacks of papers and extensive non-disclosure agreements they all signed to work on the show.
“The read I got was that [Burnett] is still pissed that people have continued talking to reporters,” one Apprentice alumnus told The Daily Beast. The source has not worked on a Burnett project in years, and indicated that Burnett’s office had recently reached out not only to current members of “his teams,” but also to Apprentice alumni who had been in management and senior positions during the long-running Trump era of the series.
“This is a show he loves and is incredibly proud of and can’t stand that its name is being dragged through the mud like this because of the campaign,” the source continued.
Burnett and his show have been widely credited for elevating Trump to a new level of celebrity in the early aughts—something that made it possible for Trump to launch a successful White House run, armed with immediate name-recognition and a larger-than-life reputation.
It’s also no real secret that Trump and Burnett began their show with an extremely chummy relationship, with both men profusely praising each other. From early on, Burnett heralded Trump as an example for the contestants—a person who they could aspire to be. “These people don’t care about being on TV, they are jumping at the chance of learning from Trump,” Burnett said at the show’s inception in 2003. “The beautiful thing about this show is that hardly anybody who applied had applied to previous shows because this is actually going to be hard and [Trump] is intimidating.”
Trump, in turn, was impressed by Burnett’s judgement in having a high opinion of Trump.
“Mark came up to me and said, ‘You know, I was selling T-shirts on Venice Beach and I read The Art of the Deal, and it had a very profound effect on me.’” Trump said in a 2003 New York Times interview. “I said to myself, ‘Boy, this guy’s really smart, because he’s trying to get to me and he’s saying just the right things.’ And he said, ‘I really want to see you about an idea.’”
Burnett also said that The Apprentice was demonstrative of Trump’s charitable nature—and his overall American greatness.
“This is Donald Trump giving back,” Burnett said in 2003. “What makes the world a safe place right now? I think it’s American dollars, which come from taxes, which come because of Donald Trump. All these buildings. How many carpenters, steelworkers, construction guys, cleaners, bellboys and maids are working through the Trump entrepreneurial vision? And what Donald Trump is doing and what The Apprentice is about is to show Americans that you have to be an entrepreneur.”
Even in the early years of the production, Burnett was clear that he would take any and all leaks seriously. When Season 1 contestant Omarosa Manigault, now a Trump surrogate and director of black outreach for the 2016 presidential campaign, alleged in 2004 that fellow contestant Ereka Vetrini called her a “nigger,” Burnett reportedly sent Manigault a cease-and-desist letter. (Manigault’s claims were never proven, and Burnett, Trump, NBC, and Vetrini vehemently denied the accusation.)
Burnett said that he had reviewed the Apprentice tapes, and that no evidence for Manigault’s claim existed—and also appeared to joke about the fact that such a controversy would have made for great television.
“A, I don’t have it [on tape] and B, I don’t believe for one moment Ereka said it or thought it,” Burnett told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. “Let me ask you this: How big would my ratings be if I did have that? Do you think, knowing me, that I wouldn’t put that on TV? Why wouldn’t I?”
Whatever pride Burnett still has in his work with Trump, The Daily Beast has spoken with more than 50 current and former staffers on the show over the course of the election, many of whom have told ugly stories about how Trump acted while on set in scenes that have never been aired.
Last month, three Apprentice staffers told The Daily Beast that Trump repeatedly demeaned Marlee Matlin, an Oscar-winning actress who competed on the show’s 11th season, as being mentally “retarded”—all because she was deaf. In the 2013 season of Celebrity Apprentice, Trump repeatedly referred to rapper and contestant Lil Jon as an “Uncle Tom”—even after several producers begged Trump to stop. Trump also forced Apprentice staff to work through Hurricane Sandy chaos in New York City, and kept making crude comments about how badly he wanted to “fuck” and “marry” celebrity contestant and Playboy Playmate Brande Roderick. (Trump was married to Melania Trump at the time.)
Trump also condoned some horrific behavior on the Apprentice set, multiple former staffers told The Daily Beast. When actor Gary Busey allegedly sexually assaulted someone on Celebrity Apprentice, staffers said Trump laughed it off. In October, Summer Zervos, a former contestant on Season 5 of The Apprentice, accused Trump of sexual assault, claiming that he “thrusted” his “genitals” on her.
Nowadays, Burnett will reportedly open up in private conversations about just how much he has grown disgusted by Trump and his campaign.
“They made a lot of money together,” a longtime Hollywood executive close with Burnett recently told Politico Magazine. “That’s all.”
Still, Burnett is trying to keep a low profile for the remainder of the 2016 presidential race—and he and MGM will continue for the foreseeable future to keep the Trump tapes firmly under lock and key.
“There was no reason to believe, if I did my very best work on The Apprentice, it wouldn’t do well,” Burnett said in April 2004. “It has good storytelling and good characters, which are the essence of all entertainment. Think about the cavemen days around the fire, then Shakespeare, books, plays, TV, and movies—all the great ones have a great story. Therefore, why should unscripted ones be any different?”
Sometimes, the greatest stories have some unexpected twists, perhaps even for the author himself.