Donald Trump’s messy divorce from NBC turned out to be a trial separation.
In June 2015, the network announced to much fanfare that it was immediately “ending its business relationship” with then-Republican presidential candidate Trump due to his “derogatory statements” about Mexicans, whom he called rapists. “The annual Miss USA and Miss Universe Pageants, which are part of a joint venture between NBC and Trump, will no longer air on NBC,” the statement read. “In addition, as Mr. Trump has already indicated, he will not be participating in The Celebrity Apprentice on NBC. Celebrity Apprentice is licensed from Mark Burnett’s United Artists Media Group and that relationship will continue.”
Trump’s subsequent hosting gig at NBC’s Saturday Night Live aside, the relationship status between him and the network that he for years called home remained chilly. In August, for instance, NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt—whose division produced Trump’s Apprentice series since before Greenblatt joined in 2011—took to Facebook to vent about The Donald.
“The sad state of affairs thanks to a pompous businessman turned reality-TV star (whose show consistently ran LAST in its time period, by the way) who thinks speaking his mind is refreshing,” Greenblatt wrote. “It’s actually corrosive and toxic because his ‘mind’ is so demented; and his effect will unfortunately linger long after he’s been told to get off the stage.”
Yet starting early next year, leader of the free world won’t be Trump’s only gig—his producing credit will still be showing up on NBC, where he is set to retain an executive-producer credit on the new version of Burnett’s Celebrity Apprentice. (The reality-TV series returns in the new year for its 15th season, featuring new host Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
Trump is expected have a continued financial stake in the show, paid through the production entity of MGM, the media company that acquired Burnett’s production company for upwards of $500 million and appointed him as head of its TV wing. (Trump will thus keep a financial interest in a TV series aired by a company that reports on his administration.)
Kellyanne Conway, a senior Trump adviser and his former campaign manager, assured the people that the incoming president would only handle Apprentice matters in his “spare time” and his “leisure time.”
On the surface, it appears as though NBC’s noisy breakup with Trump and his racist, xenophobic presidential run was in large part convenient public relations. If, according to NBC, that “derogatory” political rhetoric was beyond the pale back then, then why not now?
“Mr. Trump has a big stake in the show and conceived of it with Mark Burnett,” Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks told reporters on Thursday. (Burnett and MGM’s reps did not respond to requests for comment on this story. NBC reps would not comment on the record, either.)
At the end of the day, the NBC spin amounts to: Well, things are different this time around. Trump is not getting a check cut directly from NBC, but via MGM. It’s a level of hair-splitting that relies on the comforting thought that they are airing Burnett’s product, not Trump’s.
At this point, the only way to truly ax this remaining tie to Trump would be through dumping the new incarnation of the show entirely and simply cancelling it. (But that would cost the network revenue, of course.)
And Trump, the presidential contender and president-elect, is not just baggage that now comes with Schwarzenegger’s version of the reality show. Trump’s time as host of The Apprentice was marked by scandal, humiliation, pervasive foul and sexist language, and (at its very worst) allegations of sexual assault.
As The Daily Beast reported in October, during one season of Celebrity Apprentice Trump repeatedly mocked deaf Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin as being mentally “retarded.” In a subsequent season, Trump repeatedly called rapper and contestant Lil Jon an “Uncle Tom,” a racial slur, even after several producers begged him to stop. According to multiple Apprentice sources, after contestant and actor Gary Busey allegedly sexually assaulted someone on the show, Trump simply laughed it off and kept Busey on his TV series.
And earlier this year during the campaign, Summer Zervos, a contestant on Season 5 of The Apprentice, became one of many women to come forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault or misconduct. (Zervos claimed that he “thrusted” his “genitals” on her.)
After all of this, NBC still seems to think that The Apprentice is a lucrative product worth keeping in the family. Burnett, for his part, appears perfectly comfortable maintaining a relationship with Trump, even after condemning the “hatred, division and misogyny” of Trump’s campaign in October.
Months after cracking down on Apprentice staff leaks that reflected poorly on his friend and business partner Trump, Burnett is now also reportedly “actively involved in producing the inauguration week festivities,” and his ideas include “a parade up Fifth Avenue, [and] a helicopter ride to Washington from New York” for Trump.
According to Burnett himself, he has long believed that Trump has represented something quintessentially, and positively, American.
“What makes the world a safe place right now?” Burnett asked rhetorically during a 2003 interview. “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.”