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Why Donald Trump’s ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ return is another questionable business decision

Here's why Donald Trump's role on 'The New Celebrity Apprentice' concerns ethics experts (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)
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President-elect Donald Trump will be an executive producer of “The Celebrity Apprentice” when it returns to TV, as The Washington Post's Rosalind S. Helderman and Elahe Izadi report.

We don't really know a whole lot besides that, but as with many of Trump's plans for his business empire during his presidency, it raises a number of red flags for ethics experts.

“We were hoping he would start reducing his conflicts of interest,” said Richard W. Painter, who was an ethics lawyer to President George W. Bush. “But he’s adding to them. This is not a good idea.”

The first among the issues this raises is whether Trump will receive outside income. It's not clear how much Trump will receive, if any — Variety, which broke the story, reports that “it is likely to be in the low five-figures, at minimum,” per episode — but outside income is very restricted for both members of Congress and the people Trump is appointing to his administration.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush signed an executive order preventing political appointees from accepting outside income, with a few exceptions, including those making very low salaries and those who want to also serve in uniform.

In the House and Senate, members are limited to 15 percent of their salary in outside earned income. With current salaries at $174,000, that means they can accept only about $27,500 for outside work per year. Trump is not taking a salary as president, but of the $400,000 per year that presidents are supposed to make, 15 percent would be $60,000 — a number Trump will blow past if he is being paid in the five figures per episode.

Of course, these rules do not actually apply to Trump, given that he is president-elect, so he is apparently allowed to accept the pay. But once again, Trump would be taking advantage of his own admonition that “the president can't have a conflict of interest” and doing things other public officials can't.

Those defending Trump in the immediate aftermath of the news Thursday night pointed to the fact that presidents will often continue to receive book royalties as president. President Obama received about $56,000 from his books in 2015 after earning millions earlier in his presidency.

The difference there, Painter says, is that this was work performed before Obama became president; it was essentially an investment.

Which brings us to the next point: The matter of just how much of a part-time gig this will be. Trump could feasibly have taken the executive producer credit as the show's founder without actually doing any work.

But there are conflicting signals here. A representative for MGM, which owns and produces the show, told NBC News's Alexandra Jaffe that Trump was not expected to actually be involved in the show. But senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said Friday morning that Trump would be working on the show in his spare time, comparing it to a president's spending spare time on the golf course. That would take it out of the realm of investment and into a legitimate part-time job.

“I mean, presidents have a right to do things in their spare time or their leisure time,” Conway told CNN. “I mean, nobody objects to that.”

This would seem more a matter of personal preference. Do people care that their president remains involved in show business even as he's running the country? During their terms in office, former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell both moonlighted as football commentators, for example, and drew criticism for it.

But even if Trump does not actually do any work on the show, that also throws some ethical and legal issues into the mix, said Meredith McGehee, a strategic adviser to the Campaign Legal Center.

“If President Trump accepts pay to do no work as 'executive producer,' the money he accepts could be considered a gift, subject to gift rules,” McGehee said.

The idea that Trump's pay could constitute a gift is a potential problem because of who would be involved in giving the gift: NBC. “The Apprentice” is owned by MGM and broadcast by NBC Entertainment, which is separate from NBC News but under the same umbrella. NBC News is one of the foremost media outlets covering Trump. And even if you accept that those two entities are completely independent of one another, Trump's administration still has oversight of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates NBC Entertainment.

“First, being president is a full-time job, leaving no room for a side gig as a reality-show producer,” said Paul S. Ryan, a political law expert at the watchdog Common Cause. “Second, the president-elect will have an obvious conflict of interest, drawing a paycheck from a major media corporation that his administration has the job of overseeing.”

What's perhaps most notable about this situation is how unexpected it is. Back in August, NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt said Trump would never return to the show.

“He would never be back on 'Celebrity Apprentice,' as long as I’m here,” Greenblatt said.

Trump himself also appeared to foreclose the option of any involvement.

Yet here we are, with more questions about how Trump's business interests might affect his presidency. So far, he has shown little inclination to go above and beyond to avoid conflicts of interest and foreclose potential ethical issues related to his business. He will announce more at a news conference next week. But for now, add this to the pile.