Donald Trump’s starring role on the reality television show “The Apprentice” transformed the mogul’s image in the public eye, establishing him as a frank, tell-it-like-it-is businessman capable of making tough decisions.
Each episode’s most dramatic momentended in the corporate boardroom, with Trump decisively eliminating a contestant by delivering his famous catchphrase, “You’re fired.”
But reality television, of course, doesn’t always depict, well, reality.
According to one former competitor on the “Celebrity Apprentice,” Trump didn’t actually decide when to fire a contestant.
“He didn’t make those decisions, he didn’t fire those people,” said Clay Aiken, 38, who competed on the show in 2012 and was also a contestant on “American Idol.”
The show’s producers from NBC made those calls, giving Trump instructions through a teleprompter on his desk that looked like a phone, Aiken said in an interview on Domecast, a podcast from the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., his hometown.
It isn’t the first time the veracity of “The Apprentice” has been questioned. As The Post has reported, Trump frequently offered to give away thousands of his own dollars, often to console a fired or upset celebrity. The Post examined all of the “personal” gifts that Trump promised during 83 episodes and seven seasons, and could not confirm a single case in which Trump actually sent a gift out of his own pocket.
Now, seeing Trump as president frequently reminds Aiken of the Trump he knew on the show.
“The man as president definitely has a teleprompter sitting on his desk right now, with people telling him, ‘such and such is in the health care bill,’” Aiken said on the podcast. “I feel like half the time, his teleprompter has broken down as president and he doesn’t know what’s going on.”
“He probably is leading the country in the same way that he did ‘Apprentice,’” Aiken added. “Donald Trump isn’t the businessman that people believe he is because we saw him on TV, playing in ‘The Apprentice.’ And he did look like he was leading, but on ‘The Apprentice’ he doesn’t lead.”
Aiken, who finished as runner-up on the show to comedian Arsenio Hall, also unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat for Congress in North Carolina in 2014.
Despite his critical comments about the president, Aiken said he “always liked” Trump, and that members of his family voted for and continue to support him.
“I imagine that in person if I saw him again today I would be charmed by him,” Aiken said. “Because he’s a very gracious person … he’s a nice guy.”
In fact, after he announced he was running for Congress, Aiken said the second person he called was Trump. This was, in part, because Aiken had “enough respect for him in the political world” at the time, but also because “I was worried he was going to go on Fox News that morning and say something, and I knew if he was one of the first people I called, he’d feel honored and he’d say wonderful things.”
On “Celebrity Apprentice,” Trump was unaware of which contestants picked fights during the week, Aiken said. Producers would need to give him updates on what happened and how the contestants were doing. Aiken said he sees a similar pattern in Trump as president, arguing Trump doesn’t appear to “be willing to do the work and the research to figure out what’s going on.”
Trump spent 14 seasons as host of the NBC show, and its popularity helped Trump expand his business empire and brand recognition around the world.
As The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher wrote: “He didn’t run for president because of ‘The Apprentice,’ but according to the show’s executives and producers, without ‘The Apprentice’ there would be no candidacy.”
Trump was given 50 percent ownership stake on the show and paid, at first, $100,000 per episode, The Post has reported. He has made claims that he made more than $213 million for the show over the years.
“Celebrity Apprentice” took a two-year hiatus in 2015 and 2016, but returned this year with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Republican governor of California, as its host. In March, Schwarzenegger announced he would be leaving the show. He blamed its dwindling ratings on the show’s ongoing association with Trump. (Trump blamed the lower ratings on Schwarzenegger.)
Trump continued to hold the title of executive producer of the show after taking office, spurring criticism from ethics experts who argued the relationship presented potential conflicts of interest.
“With Trump being involved in the show, people have a bad taste and don’t want to participate as a spectator or as a sponsor or in any other way support the show,” Schwarzenegger said in an interview. “It’s a very divisive period now, and I think this show got caught up in all that division.”