Tom Arnold is on "The Hunt for the Trump Tapes"

Salon talks to the comic about his show and why he says it's making "The Apprentice" creator Mark Burnett so angry

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published September 16, 2018 3:30PM (EDT)

Tom Arnold in "The Hunt for the Trump Tapes with Tom Arnold" (Shane McCauley for Viceland)
Tom Arnold in "The Hunt for the Trump Tapes with Tom Arnold" (Shane McCauley for Viceland)

Tom Arnold opens our phone conversation with a sincere and profuse apology for his tardiness.

The actor called eight minutes after our appointed time to discuss his new Viceland series, "The Hunt for the Trump Tapes with Tom Arnold," premiering Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. This could have been a problem, considering I had requested 15 to 20 minutes to chat with Arnold. Other celebrities might have only granted me audience for the remaining 12, if that.

But Arnold is a different sort of star, to say the least. Anyone who follows him on Twitter has an inkling of that.

His profuse apology, by the way, takes about eight minutes to run its course before I can squeeze in my first question. In total a conversation that was supposed to last 20 minutes, max, ends up stretching past 78. Figuring something like this might happen, I cleared my afternoon.

Arnold is the right guy to lead "The Hunt for the Trump Tapes," because he has a million stories spiced with barbed one-liners, woven into rants that seem to burst forth from every pore on his body.

This includes the reason why he was late. According to Arnold reality producer Mark Burnett, chairman of MGM Worldwide Television Group, is not happy with the show and the comedian's quest to expose Donald Trump's racism, sexism and unfitness for office with recorded evidence — specifically, recordings Burnett has in his possession.

Arnold told me Burnett's people conveyed "The Apprentice" creator's displeasure to Vice Media CEO Nancy Dubuc, formerly the president of A&E Networks. (Viceland is a joint venture between A&E Networks and Vice Media.)

"This guy," he said with an exasperated laugh. "I'm grateful I have a female CEO. I will have a CEO when this fucking guy resigns from office too, in this fucking Hollywood culture. But she's a bad ass. She created 'Intervention' on A&E."

"I also happen to know that her husband is black," he added, apropos of . . .well, keep reading. "One of the Gottis called another Gotti or called another dude the N-word in prison, and he made him apologize. That's all I know about Nancy Dubuc. I heard that from Dog the Bounty Hunter. That's all I needed to know about her. To know that when pussies like Mark Burnett call her and say, 'Hey, do you know Tom Arnold? Because he's badmouthing Donald Trump.' She's probably like, 'Fuck you! Okay, I'll tell somebody to call him.' She doesn't call me herself.

"Anyway," he concludes while taking a breath, "I apologize for talking so much."

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Maybe this gives you a taste of what we're in for with "The Hunt for the Trump Tapes," eight half-hour episodes of a fired-up, zealous Arnold chasing down unexpurgated recorded evidence of Trump's unfitness for office.

Part unscripted reality series, part mock-investigative report (only with real evidence), the show itself is a haphazard odyssey through one man's devotion to exposing Trump as a dangerous fraud. And not just any guy, but a Hollywood insider who has rubbed elbows with Trump and countless rich white guys like him over the course of his career, Burnett included.

"He's good at the country club, to pose for pictures and all that, but you know, he's terrible at this," Arnold said, "this" being leadership of the free world. "Now, it's this crisis, it's impending doom."

Arnold said he's spent enough time with Trump when the cameras aren't rolling to have seen him at his most arrogant, greedy and ugliest. He can share first-hand stories about crude and downright evil behavior he's witnessed from Trump as well as Burnett. And that, he says, is what has the latter concerned.

The main conversation within the call, Arnold told me, is that he wants to confront Burnett at Monday's Emmy Awards ceremony. "They're really worried about me being anywhere near him," Arnold says, "I'm like , 'What about the country guys?'"

He laughed, then paused for a beat before adding, "I'm definitely going to do something at the Emmys."

A couple of off-handed comments Arnold made during our conversation made me pick my jaw up out of my lap, as well as making a note to edit it out of this article to prevent this publication from suffering any legal wrath.

"You have to know this about these Trump people. There's three things," he said. "There's death threats, you'll get a million. There's threats of lawsuits. You will get sued immediately, or threats. . . You just ignore them, the death threats, lawsuits. And they try to ruin your credibility which, I had zero to begin with. I will have zero when this is over. You have to not care about those three things. Just keep going and then, you'll be fine. And that's what I've done since October of 2016."

A lot has happened since that date, starting with Trump winning the presidency while losing the popular vote by a margin of three million. More to the point, a lot has happened since "The Hunt for the Trump Tapes" first went into production at the beginning of May. Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen, who Arnold says he spoke with for the show, was still pledging his loyalty to Trump.

In late August Cohen surrendered himself to the FBI, pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, including one count of willfully causing an unlawful corporate contribution, and one count of making an excessive campaign contribution at Trump's request for the "principal purpose of influencing [the] election." Cohen also has tapes, which leaked in the press at the end of July. They're the reason Arnold tracked him down.

Even more famously, former Trump lackey and fellow reality TV star Omarosa Manigault Newman began releasing her own surreptitious recordings of conversations from her time within the president's inner circle, coinciding with the release of her book "Unhinged" in mid-August. She's been slipping them out at a consistent drip ever since.

And of course everybody wants the rumored tape described in the Christopher Steele dossier, what Arnold gleefully and frequently refers to as the "pee-pee" tape, to see the light of day.

But Arnold's personal Lost Treasure of El Dorado is the reason that, according to Arnold, Burnett's people called Vice Media's boss. Arnold has it on good authority from a number of confidential sources who worked on "The Apprentice" that there exists hours and hours of tape showing Trump as he really is, as a misogynistic, rambling bigot.

"I don't want to be on TV as a talking head. I just want to take him down," Arnold said. "I want him to retire because he's a menace. I have never been on his team. I've never been his confidante. He is a horrible person. He is a horrible president. Everybody around him is complicit."

He is convinced that if American voters can only see that 12-hour unedited tape, the wart-encrusted "before" shot prior to Burnett and his editors glamming up the failed businessman into a character who exudes leadership qualities and success, there will be no more debating Trump's unsuitability to lead the country.

Of course, this wishful thinking discounts the fact that a number of tapes revealing Trump's unfitness to lead have circulated, starting with the famous Access Hollywood "grab 'em by the pussy" tape, which provided both audio and video evidence.

The incriminating outtakes from "The Apprentice," Arnold insists, would be different. "There's tapes, there's 80 cameras. There's cameras in the ceiling, as Trump keeps pointing out. Every time he has a buddy visit that set, he's like, 'You know, we got cameras in the ceiling? We got cameras in the ceiling!' They did a good job on that set. That set is well-miked," he said.

"The great thing about 'The Apprentice,' is that it's a game show," he added. "So they had to record every conversation that Donald Trump had with producers legally. The FCC requires it because of a game show scandal in the '50s. They can't get rid of it. So, there's a salt mine in Hutchinson, Kansas — MGM has all their film and television product there. As well as Mark Burnett's studio vault in Santa Monica. It's also on a hard drive on Rodeo Drive, as well as what my friends have, who have worked on the show."

Now, if this all sounds like the makings of a conspiracy theory-driven narrative, that's because in some respects, it is.

But it also leads a person to wonder what a show like "The Hunt for the Trump Tapes," in addition to all the audio and video leaks that are happening now and will happen in the future, will say about the value of recorded information in the wake of the alternative facts era.

Perhaps the highest and most urgent threat their exposure highlights, besides the current leakiness of Oval Office, is the fact that a significant segment of the population ignores irrefutable recorded evidence because it contradicts their beliefs about Their Man. We have ample proof that Trump is a bigot and a misogynist and yet, he still commands unwavering support from a Republican congress and his base.

Trump's behavior may be downright unholy, his policies demonstrably un-Christian, yet evangelical voters will follow him to the end of the Earth because he making moves to speed up the timetable on Armageddon.

One of Trump's most famous quotes is, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters."

Despite all this, Arnold characterizes "The Hunt for the Trump Tapes" as a comedy. Which it is.

But Arnold's manic clowning potentially damaging enough to Trump that it's resulted in a few contentious encounters as well as, by his report, interesting alliances he identifies through name dropping.

Such as, "In this moment, like Bob Woodward and I are fucking soul mates because what he's putting out there is what I've been selling this whole time. I'm pretty sure that we both had our asses chewed hard by Carl Bernstein. I have a great voice mail from Carl Bernstein where he chews my ass pretty hard. I'm very proud of that."

And: "For every Mark Burnett, there's also a crew guy that had to sign an NDA [non-disclosure agreement] for $5 million for 10 years. . . who gets braver every week too, that has tape of Trump. The fact that David Corn is on my show, again, that brought me the 47 percent tape that no one knows who recorded it because David Corn protected them. I made it clear to these guys, I will not hold it, I won't get credit for it, don't tell me about it. Here's David Corn's information if you want to be a fucking hero."

Also, this: "Now, when Michael Cohen pled guilty, that [made us] able to put his text messages with me on the show. There's nothing in there that makes me look cool in the show but, at least, it makes me less crazy because now you see that me and Michael Cohen communicated the whole time."

And, lastly: "I have to say it now, I can't take credit for anything except in each of these situations, whether be David Pecker and Dylan Howard I personally … went to their faces and confronted them to flip and also give me tape on Donald Trump, specific tape — and they flipped. Now, maybe I didn't do it, but I'm not just any guy. These guys are legendarily scary and can ruin people. I purposefully got up and I did pull it out with those guys."

Now, do not forget that Arnold himself declares that he has zero credibility. Having said that, a part of me that swoons at the thought of Arnold, a star who lives in a faux castle, being instrumental in felling Trump, the man who looks down upon most of humanity from the White House. But that probably won't happen.

It's much more likely that Arnold will succeed in getting under Burnett's skin, which he believes could bring us one step closer to Trump's resignation.

"There's a point where. . .this hurts their money," Arnold says of the fellow production companies and studios working with Burnett, citing MGM as an example. "When it becomes about money then Mark Burnett should worry. And it's getting to be about that time." For the powers that be to do the right thing, Arnold said, probably is not going to be about the country, "but they'll pretend it is."

And Arnold goes on to add that he doesn't think we'll have Trump to worry about much longer. Read on for an excerpt of our very, very long conversation, edited for length and clarity and to prevent your head from spinning off of your neck.

I just want to establish a timeline on this: when did "The Hunt for the Trump Tapes first go in to production and start shooting?

Okay. The first time I talked about this, "The Apprentice" stuff, was October 2016. When the original producer of "The Apprentice" publicly talked about how disgusting Donald Trump was — this is Bill Pruitt — then others came forward to talk about the n-word stuff. [Pruitt] quit talking very quickly, I found out, because of the death threats. I picked it up when the Access Hollywood tape did not work . . . I was frustrated that this guy was still going. I just happened to mention it, and somebody picked that up. I tried to reach out to my friends that work on "The Apprentice" to recover the tape I've been talking about. They were like, 'Oh, hell no. We have NDAs and our lives will be in danger.'

I eventually went to Mark Burnett himself, to his face, and said, 'Hey dude, I need a tape or similar tape.' He's like, 'Oh, well, Trump also wants that n-word tape too, Tom. And I won't give to him or you. So, all is fair.' This was in December of 2016 at Arnold Schwarzenegger's Christmas party. We had a big, heated exchange there. So, I thought, well maybe he'll be presidential now that he's become president. That didn't happen.

At the same time, when I first start talking about my version of 'The Apprentice' tape, people like David Corn had got the dossier. David Corn is also part of my show. . . I started talking about that, people started sharing other Trump stuff. They are like, 'Well, have you heard about the pee-pee tape, and the dossier, and eventually the elevator tape?' I started collecting all the information on these other tapes. When journalist would hit a road block on particular tapes, I would collect all their stuff. Another journalist would pick it up. Because the thing about Trump is, honest to God, even if he thinks all these tapes are possible, he can't say for sure. . . So, I keep doing this stuff. I have a crazy personality on Twitter but I'm meeting all these people behind the scenes.

Then, in maybe February of this year, Viceland says they want to get together. End of February, we get together. We have a little chat, have a little lunch. They said, 'Well, you now, we're following your Twitter. We love it. We're thinking about doing a show based on that.' I said, 'Oh, that's fantastic.' . . . Because I can use the help. I can use some cameras, maybe some researchers who come on or producers. Because I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing.

...I seem to be at the right place at the right time. I happened to be in the hotel where Michael Cohen was, because I knew he was there, because that's the the hotel I stay in.

They are also facilitating what the final goal is, which is to get Donald Trump to resign. He just has to resign. We put together, you know, one person in time — whether it be Roger Stone, who I confront, David Pecker, Dylan Howard and then eventually Michael Cohen. So, we do these episodes. It's still open ended. The idea is they air until the midterms, and I keep doing what I'm doing. Every time I do an interview or, or hopefully when the show airs, [I hope] that more people feel comfortable to come forward. . .because it is a crisis to me.

But I think it's going to end fairly soon.

Uh huh. But that's the thing about this. There have been so many instances where a tape is released, and people say, "Okay, this is it, surely, he's going to quit now." Or with the anonymous New York Times column, 'Surely this will be it.' Or even Trump's various on-record statements, people say, 'Okay! Clear evidence of obstruction of justice.' There are a lot of cases where it looks like, 'surely' this is it, and it's not. 

That's why they supported somebody like Mark Burnett because— you know, Mark Burnett's the originator. He's the creator of this guy. He created the whole thing. Fifteen years on 'The Apprentice,' he created this and he can take it home. He can wrap it up. He's literally put this whole fake charade together. He can do the final episode. He knows how this ends. He can go in there and say, 'Okay, we're going to this. We can do this the right way.' Like when he came in to do the inauguration, just discreetly, without using his name. You know, Mark Burnett's already traveling with Mike Pence. He already thinks that he's working on the next guy.

. . .Listen, I was at Fox last week on Monday, sitting next to Rupert Murdoch and his son at the commissary. That guy can shut it down in a day, too. That was made clear to me, by the way. Because I was like, "When is he going to shut it down?" and the person having lunch with me, whose is an important person there said, "When it happens, it will be instant." Because obviously they have trouble in Australia and the UK because of Trump. And it was made clear to me that it will happen swiftly and instantly, and Rupert will be the one.

So if these people have influence over him, why have they not stepped in and said, 'It's enough already'? Why are people still protecting him?

I don't know why — I think people have regrets. Now, the fact that Mark Burnett sits next to him at the prayer breakfast to this day, that gives him cover. So he can go, 'I'm a Christian.' He's not. Donald Trump has never read the Bible. Mark Burnett knows that . . . It's not just the one thing. It's not just that he had these racist thoughts but it's now he having racist policies. It's that now, he's separating babies from their mothers at the border.

. . . I think there's a lesson we're going to learn from this is, with all men, when we see something that outrageous in the future, we just need to say something.  With so many people what he's  doing is, he makes them feel good about themselves. He makes them feel powerful. When I interviewed people like [Anthony] Scaramucci I could see in their eyes they want Donald Trump to talk about them like he does about himself. They want him to say those nice things about them. And at some point, he has been super nice to them and look them in the eye. And that makes them feel good about themselves.

And he's been super nice to me, I'll tell you that. He's looked me in the eye and said, 'I'm here because of you. I'm only doing this show because of you.' And that gives you tingles in your spine because he's fucking Donald Trump and he doesn't like anybody. But, 'He's here on 'The Best Damn Sports Show' because of me. He's not here because these big athletes, he's coming here because of Tom Arnold.' And believe me I have to own that that's what happened. He made me feel special. And he went to Elton John's Oscar party with me, because 'I'm special!' Not just because he needed a ride or whatever, or Melania was super pregnant or whatever it was. And there's a picture of me and him there together because 'I'm special.' And I have to own that that happened.

But he is a god awful person, and I am complicit. I realized that when he started the birther stuff. So I've got to be going to keep doing this until, you know, there isn't enough money or. . . I don't know what it is with these guys. It's money and it's power and it's bullshit. I guess it has to be.

What is the ultimate purpose, then, of "The Hunt for the Trump Tapes"? What is the ultimate purpose of exposing them to the public?

Well, I think it'd be fun. I think it'd be it be good. But the thing that makes it great is that that literally Mark Burnett just called the CEO of my company. This is almost two years after I started. So that tells you something is going on. Because if and when I get the tape that apparently bothers Mark Burnett so much that he just called the CEO of my company, it must be that important. If I could just show America that 12 hour tape, you could see what Bob Woodward is writing about.

You can see what I think people, I think even people in Congress , would not be able to deny and be in denial about what's going out of the White House. I think it would shut everything down.I think it would make things a lot easier. You know, sometimes people just got to see tape. That's what it is. People just got to see the tape. That's what I've tried to provide for them.

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Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Donald Trump Editor's Picks Mark Burnett The Apprentice The Hunt For The Trump Tapes Tom Arnold Tv Viceland