"The Apprentice" long con persists today, even beyond its host's many convictions

Before Thursday's guilty verdicts, a published account from an unmuzzled producer revealed how his show made Trump

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 1, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr and Ivanka Trump on set during the Season Finale of the Celebrity Apprentice on May 10, 2009 in New York City. (Bill Tompkins/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr and Ivanka Trump on set during the Season Finale of the Celebrity Apprentice on May 10, 2009 in New York City. (Bill Tompkins/Getty Images)

Fun though it may be to pretend Fox News host Jeanine Pirro guzzles a box of wine before “The Five” cameras go live, on Thursday’s episode she was soberly carrying her Orange Leader’s water.

Pirro was one of several experts the network called on for reactions to a Manhattan jury finding Donald Trump guilty on all 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to the Stormy Daniels hush-money case. Fox contributor and George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley was saddened by the glee New Yorkers took in Trump's guilt. “You know that if there's a tendency in our politics to not treat people as people,” he said. He went on to add, “Regardless of how you feel about this case, that's a sad moment for a country.”

Pirro’s feelings were, shall we say, less measured. “We went over a cliff!”

Several times Pirro called Daniels a “hooker" and insisted Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case was riddled with errors along with accusing him (yet again) of being funded by George Soros.

But the phrase she kept returning to her in her tirades was fascinating. To Pirro, nefarious liberal forces are using “their hunger for power, and their hunger to be in control to destroy a man who is the strongest man I've ever met, to put some halfwit in the White House!”

She raved on, “They had to do this because Donald Trump was winning with women, with minorities, with the underserved. He is the guy that America is relying on right now to stand up and say, ‘I can be strong for all of you.’”

She said it again after her other panelists on “The Five” offered their thoughts: “Donald Trump is the strongest man I've ever met!” she said again, not the napping, flatulent defendant described by other journalists. He is not a convicted felon who, among other cases against him, owes writer E. Jean Carroll $91 million after two civil juries found him liable for sexually abusing her and committing multiple acts of defamation. He is Atlas.

Or, Jesse Watters’ view, “This man's life is a Greek tragedy! From billionaire bankrupt, TV star, Hollywood Walk of Fame. Divorces, marriages, children. And that was even before he entered politics. And then you have investigations, and hoaxes, and a pandemic. And now they're trying to incarcerate this person! And the only way this act ends is if he is reelected.”

This was not the way some of us expected Thursday to end – not even New York County Supreme Court judge Juan Merchan, who presided over the trial and was on the verge of dismissing the jury for the day when their verdict came in. After all, the day began with a Slate exclusive written by  Bill Pruitt, a former story producer on “The Apprentice."

Pruitt’s first-person recollection of who Trump was before his NBC hit politically legitimized him may not have been entirely eye-opening, but he is the closest person yet to the heart of Mark Burnett’s production to have been privy to decisions and details contenders would not have witnessed. As for why it took him this long to burden himself, he shares that what he describes as an “expansive non-disclosure agreement” has expired.

Pirro might be pleased to know that his 20-year-old memory of Trump’s stature confirms part of Pirro’s, recalling his first pre-series premiere impression of Trump as “surprisingly tall" before describing what it was like to shake his hand. “His eye contact is limited but thorough. He is sizing me up. He looks like a wolf about to rip my throat out before turning away, offering me my first glimpse at the superstructure — his hairstyle — buttressed atop his head with what must be gallons of Aqua Net.”

Much of what Pruitt says supports what so many of us know, the most important being that the show gave Trump and his decrepit building a reputational glow-up. Pruitt described the “Before” state of Trump’s offices as “cramped, and a lot of the wood furniture is chipped or peeling.” The now-shuttered Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City, where part of the finale was set, is recalled by Pruitt as a dump with stinking carpet.

But his job was to make viewers believe that whatever Trump touches turns to gold, part of what he calls “a long con [that] played out over a decade”:

No one involved in "The Apprentice" — from the production company or the network to the cast and crew — was involved in a con with malicious intent. It was a TV show, and it was made for entertainment. I still believe that. But we played fast and loose with the facts, particularly regarding Trump, and if you were one of the 28 million who tuned in, chances are you were conned.

Have you ever been pickpocketed? Fooled by a phone scam? Rare is the adult who hasn’t been hoodwinked by somebody somewhere. In most cases our pride takes the brunt of the sting; in the worst those violations are devastating.  Hopefully, we recover and our resilience kicks in. We tell ourselves it wasn’t so bad. We vow to be more careful in the future.

But with each successful take the con artists become bolder and more pervasive to the point that it’s not simply one flimflammer but a vast apparatus. "The Apprentice" was the conduit to Trump gaining entry to Fox News, the GOP and gullible voters who believed his fantasy of being an accomplished self-made master of capitalism. 

“The Apprentice” con continues through right-wing pundits currying Trump's favor by casting him as Goliath and David in one flesh, battling a justice system specifically weaponized against him. That sounds a lot better than taking the L for once, and in a criminal case decided by 12 everyday New Yorkers whose participation was agreed upon by the prosecutors and Trump’s legal team.

The most effective scams fool targets into thinking they’re in on the get-rich-quick scheme. One recent trend known as pig slaughtering persuades the unsuspecting to dump all their money in a cryptocurrency scam only to discover they've been left with nothing when they go to cash out an account that never existed. Pruitt likens the “Apprentice” deception to the classic “pig in a poke” con — a similar premise, only involving livestock — as he sets up the squealer near the end, revealing Trump used a racist term casually in his presence.

Donald Trump; Omarosa ManigaultBusinessman Donald Trump and actress Omarosa Manigault attend the "All-Star Celebrity Apprentice" Red Carpet Event at Trump Tower on April 1, 2013 in New York City. (Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic/Getty Images)Nobody should be shocked by this. Omarosa Manigault Newman made a similar claim in 2018 during her press tour for her cash-in/book “Unhinged.” At the time, Trump refuted Manigault Newman’s accusation by saying he “doesn’t have that word in [his] vocabulary.”

Pruitt begs to differ. He writes that was in the room as Trump’s advisers assessed the first season’s two finalists – Bill Rancic, a white entrepreneur from Chicago, and the Harvard-educated Goldman-Sachs broker Kwame Jackson. When first season “Apprentice” judge Carolyn Kepcher strongly advocated for Jackson to win, Pruitt recalls Trump saying, “Yeah, but, I mean, would America buy a [N word] winning?”

Adding a new spike to this long railroad track is Pruitt’s verification that this and other conversations between Trump and his advisers with producers present were recorded.

“The Apprentice” con continues through right-wing pundits currying Trump's favor by casting him as Goliath and David in one flesh.

The production did this out of caution, in case the Federal Communications Commission were to investigate any claims the producers influenced the outcome. That would have run afoul of regulations established in the wake of the famous 1950s quiz show scandals.

He also surmises tapes probably no longer exist or have been somehow lost; Manigault Newman says she heard the recording. Still, he’s the third person directly connected to “The Apprentice” to insist that Trump is a virulent racist.

Jackson declaratively sounded that warning before Trump won the presidential election in 2016, days after the audio of the “Access Hollywood” tape leaked. Other political careers were ended by less damning evidence. Trump won the Electoral College anyway.

On Thursday Pruitt’s insights further illuminated the rot at the core of sycophantic verdict reaction posts from the likes of Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. Scott, who invoked America’s “two-tier justice system” and accused Joe Biden of “weaponizing the justice system of the United States of America against a political opponent.”

The hush money trial is related to state charges, not federal – but Scott and others know Trump’s fandom doesn't care.

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As MSNBC’s Joy Reid brought up Thursday, mentioning Scott alongside Marco Rubio, R.-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., “They know damn well, who normally ends up at the bottom of this criminal justice system.”

She went on to offer, “They understand fully because they have lived in the bodies of Black men, those two Black men. And they're willing to sell themselves cheap. . . . For them it can be absolutely dirt cheap, free — that's the cheapest it can be — to sell your soul and the lives and memory of all of the Black men and women and brown men and women who have suffered in the criminal justice system . . . where they won't have any of the benefits that Donald Trump has used to kill every case but this one.

NBC and Mark Burnett’s illusionists created Trump out of a tarnished man buried in debt who even back then required heavy editing to appear competent.

“The one good thing that happened here,” Reid concluded, “is that this case was brought in a state that no Republican controls. . . .  Thank God for the state of New York, Donald Trump's home state, because there was no way for him to interfere with the process of justice.”

The con Pruitt describes is still bearing fruit in the form of a riven electorate and separate mediaspheres. Where pundits like Reid pointed out that this was evidence of the system working and praised the jurors for their bravery, the closed right-wing system complained the case was “rigged” and ripe for appeal.

But its potency also shows itself in the legend that the likes of Watters and other right-wing performers are feverishly gilding. Not by listing his merits or accomplishments – how could they? Instead, they wax rhapsodically about an unjustly dethroned Midas that, as Pruitt says, NBC and Burnett’s illusionists created out of a tarnished man buried in debt who even back then required heavy editing to appear competent.

This wasn't far from assessments CNN contributors made Friday morning following the ex-president and current felon's rambling jeremiad. “It was, I think, surprisingly incoherent, surprisingly all over the place,” said senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson.

“He wants to make this argument about age against Biden, but here he was looking, you know, kind of like an old man who was just ranting and raving in a self-involved way . . . this wasn’t a great outing for him.”

No matter. There’s always sequel potential. Once the magic wore off “The Apprentice,” we were served “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Already our cable networks have forgotten the price our democracy paid after handing Trump an estimated $5 billion in free media coverage back in 2016.

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We’ll never know if that might have been different, for better or worse, had Pruitt or others been free to caution us about the “Apprentice” long con.

All we can be sure of is that now, whether people believe them is secondary to the horror of knowing an unsettling number of Americans embrace Pirro’s strongman vision. They’re on board with unapologetic racism and misogyny and resent his being held accountable for a crime that isn’t related to some undefinable “woke” fantasy.

On Thursday, 12 ordinary New Yorkers created another Must-See Thursday by tearing 34 holes in the “might makes right” fantasy that informs the MAGA vision of their place in the world.

“This is something that we have to step back and say, ‘We are too good for this!'” Pirro ranted. She’s half-right. There’s always a chance to pause any grift, that kick of intuition that ignites our suspicion that something is wrong. Americans passed that break many seasons ago and have learned to ignore the blare of democracy’s emergency broadcast system. Moments like these make us pay attention if only to let us know that this is who we are.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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