WASHINGTON — The time had come to fire Khloé Kardashian. But first, Donald Trump had a question.
“What’s your charity?” Trump asked.
They were filming “The Celebrity Apprentice,” the reality-TV show where Trump schooled the faded and the semi-famous in the arts of advertising, salesmanship and workplace infighting. Most weeks, one winner got prize money for charity. One loser got fired.
Kardashian told Trump that she was playing for the Brent Shapiro Foundation, which helps teens stay away from alcohol and drugs.
Trump had a pleasant surprise. Although Kardashian could not win any more prize money, he would give her cause a special, personal donation. Not the show’s money. His own money.
“I’m going to give $20,000 to your charity,” Trump said, according to a transcript of that show.
After the show aired in 2009, Kardashian’s charity did receive $20,000. But it wasn’t from Trump. Instead, the check came from a TV production company, the same one that paid out the show’s official prizes.
The same thing happened numerous times on “The Celebrity Apprentice.” To console a fired or disappointed celebrity, Trump would promise a personal gift.
On-air, Trump seemed to be explicit that this wasn’t TV fakery: The money he was giving was his own. “Out of my wallet,” Trump said in one case. “Out of my own account,” he said in another.
But, when the cameras were off, the payments came from other people’s money.
In some cases, as with Kardashian, Trump’s “personal” promise was paid off by a production company. Other times, it was paid off by a nonprofit that Trump controls, whose coffers are largely filled with other donors’ money.
The Washington Post tracked all the “personal” gifts that Trump promised on the show — during 83 episodes and seven seasons — but could not confirm a single case in which Trump actually sent a gift from his own pocket.
Trump did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
On-screen, Trump was a wise, tough businessman. And, at times, a kindhearted philanthropist — willing to give away thousands on a whim.
In one instance, Trump’s sudden flourish of generosity was enough to move an insult comedian to tears.
“I’m gonna give $10,000 to it, okay?” Trump said, offering a personal gift to singer Aubrey O’Day after O’Day’s team lost that week’s task. Then Trump noticed another contestant, Lisa Lampanelli — a comedian known as “The Queen of Mean. “Are you crying now? Lisa, what’s going on here?”
“I thought that was really nice,” Lampanelli said, her voice breaking. “I mean, it takes you 30 seconds to make that amount, so thank you. You’re a rich man, and we appreciate it.”
The Post examined Trump’s on-air promises as part of its ongoing search for evidence that the Republican presidential nominee gives millions to charity out of his own pocket — as he claims. Trump has declined to release his tax returns, which would make his charitable donations clear.
NBC, which broadcast his show, declined to release the episodes for review, saying it did not own the footage. Instead, The Post relied on TV transcription services, online recaps of the show, YouTube clips and public tax records.
In all, The Post found 21 separate instances where Trump had pledged money to a celebrity’s cause. Together, those pledges totaled $464,000. The Post then contacted the individual charities to find out who paid off Trump’s promises.
In one case, the answer was: nobody at all.
In two other cases, it was not possible to determine what happened. One charity said that somebody had paid off Trump’s promise but declined to say who. Leaders of another charity — baseball star Darryl Strawberry’s foundation, to which Trump had promised $25,000 — did not respond to multiple calls or emails from The Post.
In the other 18 cases, the answer was the same — on-air, Trump promising a gift of his own money; off-air, that gift coming from someone else.
“I think you’re so incredible that — personally, out of my own account — I’m going to give you $50,000 for St. Jude’s,” Trump told mixed martial arts star Tito Ortiz in 2008.
This was the first personal promise The Post found, from the show’s first season.
Ortiz, at the time, was being fired. His team had come up short in a contest to design advertising for yogurt-based body wash. To soften the blow, Trump promised the gift to Ortiz’s charity, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
Tax records show that the hospital was sent $50,000 from a nonprofit, the Donald J. Trump Foundation.
That sounds like it was Trump’s money.
But, for the most part, it wasn’t.
Trump had founded the nonprofit group in the late 1980s — and, in its early years, Trump was its only donor. But that had changed in the mid-2000s. Trump let the foundation’s assets dwindle to $4,238 at the beginning of 2007. After that, its coffers were filled using donations from others, most notably pro wrestling magnates Vince and Linda McMahon.
In 2007 and 2008 combined, Trump gave $65,000 to his own foundation, or about 1 percent of its incoming money.
When he described his gift to Ortiz on-air in 2008, it was personal, “from my own account.”
“Thank you very much,” Ortiz said.
“Get out of here,” Trump said.
In the next few seasons, such personal promises from Trump were relatively rare. The Post found six such pledges in the show’s first four seasons combined.
And in at least two of those cases, the payment didn’t come from Trump — or his foundation, which he had used to pay Ortiz’s charity.
“What’s your charity, Jose?” Trump asked baseball slugger Jose Canseco in an episode in 2011. Canseco was leaving the show voluntarily because his father had become ill. As with Kardashian, Trump said he would soften the blow with a gift. Canseco’s charity was the Baseball Assistance Team, which provides confidential aid to minor leaguers, umpires, retired players and others connected to the sport.
“All right, I’m gonna give $25,000,” Trump said. “Say hello to your father.”
As with Kardashian, that money came from Reilly Worldwide. Trump gave nothing.
The Post sent a query to Canseco: Did he think any differently about Trump after he learned that a third party paid off Trump’s promise?
No comment. “He said he’s only doing paying jobs. I’m sorry,” Canseco’s publicist wrote.
In 2012, Trump became more generous on the air.
That year, he promised six $10,000 donations in a single episode. In another episode, he gave contestant O’Day’s charity $10,000 — the gift that moved Lampanelli to tears.
It was all Trump Foundation money.
In 2013, the gifts continued. In one episode that year, Trump handed out $20,000 each to the charities of basketball star Dennis Rodman, singer La Toya Jackson and actor Gary Busey.
“Remember, Donald Trump is a very nice person, okay?” he told them.
By then, a personal gift from Trump was no longer a rare thing. In fact, contestants had come to expect these gifts — and even to demand them, when Trump didn’t offer money on his own.
“Give her some money. She didn’t win nothin’, ” country singer Trace Adkins told Trump in one episode as the billionaire was firing former Playboy Playmate Brande Roderick.
“Okay, I’m going to give you $20,000, okay? All right?” Trump told Roderick.
“Thank you, Mr. Trump,” said Adkins, the man who sang “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” “That was cool.”
All of that was the Trump Foundation’s money.
In fact, The Post’s search found that all of Trump’s promises from the show’s last three seasons were paid off by the Trump Foundation, save one. That was the biggest one. In 2013, Trump promised $100,000 to the American Diabetes Association, the charity of hip-hop artist Lil Jon. He said that the gift was in honor of Lil Jon’s mother, who had recently died.
In that case, a production company paid.
The Post reached out to Trump, NBC and Mark Burnett — the show’s producer — to ask whether there was any way that these production-company checks could actually be considered gifts from Trump himself. Had they, perhaps, been deducted from Trump’s fees for the show?
Trump and Burnett did not respond. NBC declined to comment.
After The Post’s close look at Trump’s promises on the show, a mystery remained: What happened in 2012 to make Trump so much more generous on the air?
In the tax records of the Trump Foundation — which Trump used to pay off most of those new promises — there is no record of a donation from Trump himself in 2012.
In fact, there is no record of any gift from Trump’s pocket to the Trump Foundation in any year since 2008. (In 2011, Comedy Central donated Trump’s $400,000 appearance fee for a televised roast.)
But, in 2012, the Trump Foundation’s records show a large gift from NBC, the network that aired the show. That was more than enough to cover all the foundation’s gifts to “Celebrity Apprentice” contestants’ charities, both before 2012 and since.
For NBC, Trump’s “personal” donations made for better TV. They added will-he-or-won’t-he drama to the show’s boardroom scenes, gave uplifting notes to the “firings” and burnished the reputation of Trump, the show’s star.
Did NBC give Trump’s foundation money, so that Trump could appear to be more generous on-camera?
An NBC spokeswoman declined to comment.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectedly stated that a donation promised to the Latino Commission on AIDS had never been received. After rechecking its records, the commission informed The Post on Sept. 13 that it had discovered a $10,000 check from the Donald J. Trump Foundation.
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.