He’s signed a massive tax cut into law, stacked the federal courts, waged a trade war against China, and eliminated the leader of ISIS—and yet, Donald Trump still longs for his job as a reality-TV host.
Since taking office in early 2017, the president has confided to close associates that he misses hosting The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice on NBC, the reality-TV staples he left behind to become the Republican Party standard-bearer and then the leader of the free world. Trump has waxed nostalgic about how he created what he sees as the greatest thing reality television has ever seen. Two sources who’ve spoken to him recall Trump saying that he will perhaps one day revisit the medium.
And it may not just be fits of nostalgia.
According to three people with knowledge of the situation and another source close to Trump, Apprentice creator Mark Burnett and the president have sporadically kept in touch, mostly over the phone, since Trump won the election. The pair remain friends, these sources say, and have discussed reviving their creative partnership, pitching each other details on potential TV projects to be filmed after the Trump presidency.
One of the ideas kicked around by Burnett and the president was shooting a new version of the Trump-branded Apprentice, tentatively titled The Apprentice: White House, and to produce it shortly after the president leaves office. This time, however, the TV program would be explicitly politics-themed and take full advantage of Trump’s status as a former president of the United States and a newfound Republican kingmaker.
“There have been several discussions between Burnett and Trump about The Apprentice: White House,” a person with knowledge of the situation told The Daily Beast. “It is something Burnett thinks could be a money-spinner and Trump is very keen on doing.”
Another one of the knowledgeable sources said, “They actually talked about an Apprentice: White House,” but conceded that “as far as I know, the discussion did not go far.”
The relationship between Burnett and Trump has been an object of immense speculation and fascination since the former began his political rise.
Their work together hit its peak in the early and mid-Aughts. And they grew so close that Burnett’s son Cameron was the ring-bearer at Trump’s 2005 wedding to Melania. During the campaign, Burnett faced intense pressure to release unaired footage of Apprentice tapings after it became clear that the behind-the-scenes drama showed Trump in a highly unfavorable light. The future president reportedly covered for actor Gary Busey after an alleged sexual-assault incident on-set, repeatedly called rapper Lil Jon an “Uncle Tom” on The Celebrity Apprentice, and mocked actress Marlee Matlin as “retarded” simply because she was deaf.
Burnett declined to make any footage public or to let former contestants out of their nondisclosure agreements. But shortly before Trump was elected president, he did go out of his way to denounce the “hatred, division, and misogyny that has been a very unfortunate part of his campaign.” The statement came in the midst of a flood of sexual-misconduct and assault allegations that were publicly made against Trump shortly after the October 2016 publication of the infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” tape.
After Trump won the election, however, Burnett was ready to put all that bigotry and sexism behind him. He buddied back up to Trump and even played a role in the inauguration, trying—largely unsuccessfully—to recruit musicians to perform for Trump’s festivities.
One person who has spoken with Burnett about Trump said he openly boasted of his relationship to the president: “Mark would say ‘My relationship with the president is incredibly strong. I’m the most powerful person in Hollywood because of it. I could wipe the floor because of it.’ Mark has no shame.”
A spokesperson for Burnett told The Daily Beast: “The quoted statements attributed to Mr. Burnett are absolutely false. Among other things, The president and Mr. Burnett have not discussed making television shows in any shape or form.”
White House spokespeople did not provide comment for this report.
Early on in the Trump era, the Apprentice brand really hit the skids. A different version of Celebrity Apprentice, hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, was produced by NBC and Burnett, though that incarnation went bust after one season. In early 2017, Schwarzenegger announced he would be leaving the show, and blamed its failure on Trump’s divisiveness, to which the president, naturally, took umbrage.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't voluntarily leaving the Apprentice, he was fired by his bad (pathetic) ratings, not by me. Sad end to [a] great show,” Trump tweeted.
It wasn’t a one-off. Well into the third year of his presidency, Trump continued to wield The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice not only as a source of pride, but also as a cudgel against political enemies, media foes, and Hollywood antagonists.
And, through it all, he has touted his relationship with Burnett. At a rally last year in Richfield, Ohio, he told the crowd, “I got a call from Mark Burnett! He did The Apprentice, he’s a great guy. He said, ‘Donald, I called just to say hello and to tell you, did you see Roseanne’s ratings?’ “I said, ‘Mark, how big were they?’ ‘They were unbelievable! Over 18 million people!’”
Omarosa Manigault Newman, who became famous as a reality-TV villain while a contestant on Survivor and the first hit season of The Apprentice, and went on to become a senior official in the Trump administration, told The Daily Beast that Trump and Burnett were extremely close.
“The last time I was in a room with Trump and Mark Burnett was at the prayer breakfast right after he got elected,” Manigault Newman said. “In the green room, we all laughed about the Apprentice days and how we’ve come from there. Trump and Burnett were truly the best of buds.”
Newman has since had a falling out with the president, to whom she once pledged her undying fealty and now bashes as a mentally unstable racist. And when told of the concept of The Apprentice: White House, she called the idea “so absurd.”
“It’s already a reality show,” she said.
That Trump would return to the world of reality TV after his presidency isn’t all that far-fetched, however. He almost didn’t become president, after all, because he loved that world so much.
As early as 2013, back when “President Trump” was little more than an old, throw-away Simpsons joke, he had reservations about entering politics because of the sacrifices he’d have to make.
“[Trump] talked about whether if he ran for [New York] governor, or if he ran for president, if he had to quit the show because he really liked it,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump adviser and then 2016 aide, recalling conversations they had when Caputo was advising him in 2013 and 2014. “That consideration came up multiple times. It appeared to be a pretty profitable business deal for him and he didn’t want to give that up.”
Caputo also recounted a specific moment in May 2016, when Trump invited conservative-media figures Matt Drudge and Sean Hannity to campaign headquarters, and promptly showed off the old Apprentice digs. “Part of the campaign office in Trump Tower was on the [former] soundstage of The Apprentice down on the fifth floor… The bathrooms they built on the fifth floor to service the crew of The Apprentice were the same bathrooms we used [for 2016 staff],” Caputo said. “When [Trump] came in and did a taping of Hannity in the campaign office, Hannity was there and Matt Drudge, separately, was there, and he mentioned that this was actually the Apprentice set.”
Sam Nunberg, another former political adviser to Trump, recalled his former boss appearing noticeably crestfallen at the thought of losing The Apprentice to the campaign trail.
“The day that NBC announced that Donald Trump would no longer be able to host The Apprentice in 2015 was one of the very few times I’ve ever seen the [then-future] president visibly upset in immediate reaction to news,” Nunberg said.
The ex-aide continued, “When very famous people—celebrities, athletes, people in Hollywood, politicians, network executives, network hosts—would call his office in Trump Tower, he would often let people sit there and listen as he talked to them; occasionally, he would put them on speakerphone. But when Mark Burnett called, which was frequent [between 2013 and 2015], Trump would politely tell everyone else to ‘get out’ of his office.”
Ironically, one of President Trump’s central gripes in recent months regarding his predecessor, Barack Obama, is the imagined corruption that the former president engaged in by securing a major entertainment and production deal with Netflix in his post-presidency life.
But if Trump’s conversations with Burnett are of any indication, it appears that the sitting president is yearning for his own version of “Obama Netflix?” And according to those who know Burnett, the reality-TV kingpin is similarly champing at the bit.
One person who worked closely with Burnett at MGM, where he is currently the chairman of MGM Worldwide Television Group, says Burnett would be motivated by only one thing in continuing his working relationship with Trump.
“Mark has one religion and that’s money,” the person said.