How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success: With “The Apprentice,” the TV producer mythologized Trump— a floundering D-lister —as the ultimate titan, paving his way to the Presidency.
edition: Robinson,” a Swedish reality-television program, premièred in the summer of 1997, with a tantalizing premise: sixteen strangers are deposited on a small island off the coast of Malaysia and forced to fend for themselves. To survive, they must coöperate, but they are also competing: each week, a member of the ensemble is voted off the island, and the final contestant wins a grand prize. The show’s title alluded to both “Robinson Crusoe” and “The Swiss Family Robinson,” but a more apt literary reference might have been “Lord of the Flies.” The first contestant who was kicked off was a young man named Sinisa Savija. Upon returning to Sweden, he was morose, complaining to his wife that the show’s editors would “cut away the good things I did and make me look like a fool.” Nine weeks before the show aired, he stepped in front of a speeding train.
The producers dealt with this tragedy by suggesting that Savija’s turmoil was unrelated to the series—and by editing him virtually out of the show. Even so, there was a backlash, with one critic asserting that a program based on such merciless competition was “fascist television.” But everyone watched the show anyway, and Savija was soon forgotten. “We had never seen anything like it,” Svante Stockselius, the chief of the network that produced the program, told the Los Angeles Times, in 2000. “Expedition: Robinson” offered a potent cocktail of repulsion and attraction. You felt embarrassed watching it, Stockselius said, but “you couldn’t stop.”
In 1998, a thirty-eight-year-old former British paratrooper named Mark Burnett was living in Los Angeles, producing television. “Lord of the Flies” was one of his favorite books, and after he heard about “Expedition: Robinson” he secured the rights to make an American version. Burnett had previously worked in sales and had a knack for branding. He renamed the show “Survivor.”
The first season was set in Borneo, and from the moment it aired, on CBS, in 2000, “Survivor” was a ratings juggernaut: according to the network, a hundred and twenty-five million Americans—more than a third of the population—tuned in for some portion of the season finale. The catchphrase delivered by the host, Jeff Probst, at the end of each elimination ceremony, “The tribe has spoken,” entered the lexicon. Burnett had been a marginal figure in Hollywood, but after this triumph he, too, was rebranded, as an oracle of spectacle. Les Moonves, then the chairman of CBS, arranged for the delivery of a token of thanks—a champagne-colored Mercedes. To Burnett, the meaning of this gesture was unmistakable: “I had arrived.” The only question was what he might do next.
A few years later, Burnett was in Brazil, filming “Survivor: The Amazon.” His second marriage was falling apart, and he was staying in a corporate apartment with a girlfriend. One day, they were watching TV and happened across a BBC documentary series called “Trouble at the Top,” about the corporate rat race. The girlfriend found the show boring and suggested changing the station, but Burnett was transfixed. He called his business partner in L.A. and said, “I’ve got a new idea.” Burnett would not discuss the concept over the phone—one of his rules for success was to always pitch in person—but he was certain that the premise had the contours of a hit: “Survivor” in the city. Contestants competing for a corporate job. The urban jungle!
He needed someone to play the role of heavyweight tycoon. Burnett, who tends to narrate stories from his own life in the bravura language of a Hollywood pitch, once said of the show, “It’s got to have a hook to it, right? They’ve got to be working for someone big and special and important. Cut to: I’ve rented this skating rink.”
In 2002, Burnett rented Wollman Rink, in Central Park, for a live broadcast of the Season 4 finale of “Survivor.” The property was controlled by Donald Trump, who had obtained the lease to operate the rink in 1986, and had plastered his name on it. Before the segment started, Burnett addressed fifteen hundred spectators who had been corralled for the occasion, and noticed Trump sitting with Melania Knauss, then his girlfriend, in the front row. Burnett prides himself on his ability to “read the room”: to size up the personalities in his audience, suss out what they want, and then give it to them.
“I need to show respect to Mr. Trump,” Burnett recounted, in a 2013 speech in Vancouver. “I said, ‘Welcome, everybody, to Trump Wollman skating rink. TheTrump Wollman skating rink is a fine facility, built by Mr. Donald Trump. Thank you, Mr. Trump. Because the Trump Wollman skating rink is the place we are tonight and we love being at the Trump Wollman skating rink, Mr. Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.” As Burnett told the story, he had scarcely got offstage before Trump was shaking his hand, proclaiming, “You’re a genius!”
Cut to: June, 2015. After starring in fourteen seasons of “The Apprentice,” all executive-produced by Burnett, Trump appeared in the gilded atrium of Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue, to announce that he was running for President. Only someone “really rich,” Trump declared, could “take the brand of the United States and make it great again.” He also made racist remarks about Mexicans, prompting NBC, which had broadcast “The Apprentice,” to fire him. Burnett, however, did not sever his relationship with his star. He and Trump had been equal partners in “The Apprentice,” and the show had made each of them hundreds of millions of dollars. They were also close friends: Burnett liked to tell people that when Trump married Knauss, in 2005, Burnett’s son Cameron was the ring bearer.
Trump had been a celebrity since the eighties, his persona shaped by the best-selling book “The Art of the Deal.” But his business had foundered, and by 2003 he had become a garish figure of local interest—a punch line on Page Six. “The Apprentice” mythologized him anew, and on a much bigger scale, turning him into an icon of American success. Jay Bienstock, a longtime collaborator of Burnett’s, and the showrunner on “The Apprentice,” told me, “Mark always likes to compare his shows to great films or novels. All of Mark’s shows feel bigger than life, and this is by design.”
Burnett has made many programs since “The Apprentice,” among them “Shark Tank,” a startup competition based on a Japanese show, and “The Voice,” a singing contest adapted from a Dutch program. In June, he became the chairman of M-G-M Television. But his chief legacy is to have cast a serially bankrupt carnival barker in the role of a man who might plausibly become the leader of the free world. “I don’t think any of us could have known what this would become,” Katherine Walker, a producer on the first five seasons of “The Apprentice,” told me. “But Donald would not be President had it not been for that show.”
Tony Schwartz, who wrote “The Art of the Deal,” which falsely presented Trump as its primary author, told me that he feels some responsibility for facilitating Trump’s imposture. But, he said, “Mark Burnett’s influence was vastly greater,” adding, “ ‘The Apprentice’ was the single biggest factor in putting Trump in the national spotlight.” Schwartz has publicly condemned Trump, describing him as “the monster I helped to create.” Burnett, by contrast, has refused to speak publicly about his relationship with the President or about his curious, but decisive, role in American history.
Burnett is lean and lanky, with the ageless, perpetually smiling face of Peter Pan and eyes that, in the words of one ex-wife, have “a Photoshop twinkle.” He has a high forehead and the fixed, gravity-defying hair of a nineteen-fifties film star. People often mistake Burnett for an Australian, because he has a deep tan and an outdoorsy disposition, and because his accent has been mongrelized by years of international travel. But he grew up in Dagenham, on the eastern outskirts of London, a milieu that he has recalled as “gray and grimy.” His father, Archie, was a tattooed Glaswegian who worked the night shift at a Ford automobile plant. His mother, Jean, worked there as well, pouring acid into batteries, but in Mark’s recollection she always dressed immaculately, “never letting her station in life interfere with how she presented herself.” Mark, an only child, grew up watching American television shows such as “Starsky & Hutch” and “The Rockford Files.”
At seventeen, he volunteered for the British Army’s Parachute Regiment; according to a friend who enlisted with him, he joined for “the glitz.” The Paras were an élite unit, and a soldier from his platoon, Paul Read, told me that Burnett was a particularly formidable special operator, both physically commanding and a natural leader: “He was always super keen. He always wanted to be the best, even among the best.” (Another soldier recalled that Burnett was nicknamed the Male Model, because he was reluctant to “get any dirt under his fingernails.”) Burnett served in Northern Ireland, and then in the Falklands, where he took part in the 1982 advance on Port Stanley. The experience, he later said, was “horrific, but on the other hand—in a sick way—exciting.”
When Burnett left the Army, after five years, his plan was to find work in Central America as a “weapons and tactics adviser”—not as a mercenary, he later insisted, though it is difficult to parse the distinction. Before he left, his mother told him that she’d had a premonition and implored him not to take another job that involved carrying a gun. Like Trump, Burnett trusts his impulses. “Your gut instinct is rarely wrong,” he likes to say. During a layover in Los Angeles, he decided to heed his mother’s admonition, and walked out of the airport. He later described himself as the quintessential immigrant: “I had no money, no green card, no nothing.” But the California sun was shining, and he was eager to try his luck.
Burnett is an avid raconteur, and his anecdotes about his life tend to have a three-act structure. In Act I, he is a fish out of water, guileless and naïve, with nothing but the shirt on his back and an outsized dream. Act II is the rude awakening: the world bets against him. It’s impossible! You’ll lose everything! No such thing has ever been tried! In Act III, Burnett always prevails. Not long after arriving in California, he landed his first job—as a nanny. Eyebrows were raised: a commando turned nanny? Yet Burnett thrived, working for a family in Beverly Hills, then one in Malibu. As he later observed, the experience taught him “how nice the life styles of wealthy people are.” Young, handsome, and solicitous, he discovered that successful people are often happy to talk about their path to success.
Burnett married a California woman, Kym Gold, who came from an affluent family. “Mark has always been very, very hungry,” Gold told me recently. “He’s always had a lot of drive.” For a time, he worked for Gold’s stepfather, who owned a casting agency, and for Gold, who owned an apparel business. She would buy slightly imperfect T-shirts wholesale, at two dollars apiece, and Burnett would resell them, on the Venice boardwalk, for eighteen. That was where he learned “the art of selling,” he has said. The marriage lasted only a year, by which point Burnett had obtained a green card. (Gold, who had also learned a thing or two about selling, went on to co-found the denim company True Religion, which was eventually sold for eight hundred million dollars.)
One day in the early nineties, Burnett read an article about a new kind of athletic event: a long-distance endurance race, known as the Raid Gauloises, in which teams of athletes competed in a multiday trek over harsh terrain. In 1992, Burnett organized a team and participated in a race in Oman. Noticing that he and his teammates were “walking, climbing advertisements” for gear, he signed up sponsors. He also realized that if you filmed such a race it would make for exotic and gripping viewing. Burnett launched his own race, the Eco-Challenge, which was set in such scenic locations as Utah and British Columbia, and was televised on various outlets, including the Discovery Channel. Bienstock, who first met Burnett when he worked on the “Eco-Challenge” show, in 1996, told me that Burnett was less interested in the ravishing backdrops or in the competition than he was in the intense emotional experiences of the racers: “Mark saw the drama in real people being the driving force in an unscripted show.”
By this time, Burnett had met an aspiring actress from Long Island named Dianne Minerva and married her. They became consumed with making the show a success. “When we went to bed at night, we talked about it, when we woke up in the morning, we talked about it,” Dianne Burnett told me recently. In the small world of adventure racing, Mark developed a reputation as a slick and ambitious operator. “He’s like a rattlesnake,” one of his business competitors told the New York Times in 2000. “If you’re close enough long enough, you’re going to get bit.” Mark and Dianne were doing far better than Mark’s parents ever had, but he was restless. One day, they attended a seminar by the motivational speaker Tony Robbins called “Unleash the Power Within.”
A good technique for realizing your goals, Robbins counselled, was to write down what you wanted most on index cards, then deposit them around your house, as constant reminders. In a 2012 memoir, “The Road to Reality,” Dianne Burnett recalls that she wrote the word “family” on her index cards. Mark wrote “more money.”
As a young man, Burnett occasionally found himself on a flight for business, looking at the other passengers and daydreaming: If this plane were to crash on a desert island, where would I fit into our new society? Who would lead and who would follow? “Nature strips away the veneer we show one another every day, at which point people become who they really are,” Burnett once wrote. He has long espoused a Hobbesian world view, and when he launched “Survivor” a zero-sum ethos was integral to the show. “It’s quite a mean game, just like life is kind of a mean game,” Burnett told CNN, in 2001. “Everyone’s out for themselves.”
On “Survivor,” the competitors were split into teams, or “tribes.” In this raw arena, Burnett suggested, viewers could glimpse the cruel essence of human nature. It was undeniably compelling to watch contestants of different ages, body types, and dispositions negotiate the primordial challenges of making fire, securing shelter, and foraging for food. At the same time, the scenario was extravagantly contrived: the castaways were shadowed by camera crews, and helicopters thundered around the island, gathering aerial shots.
Moreover, the contestants had been selected for their charisma and their combustibility. “It’s all about casting,” Burnett once observed. “As a producer, my job is to make the choices in who to work with and put on camera.” He was always searching for someone with the sort of personality that could “break through the clutter.” In casting sessions, Burnett sometimes goaded people, to see how they responded to conflict. Katherine Walker, the “Apprentice” producer, told me about an audition in which Burnett taunted a prospective cast member by insinuating that he was secretly gay. (The man, riled, threw the accusation back at Burnett, and was not cast that season.)
Richard Levak, a clinical psychologist who consulted for Burnett on “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” and worked on other reality-TV shows, told me that producers have often liked people he was uncomfortable with for psychological reasons. Emotional volatility makes for compelling television. But recruiting individuals for their instability and then subjecting them to the stress of a televised competition can be perilous. When Burnett was once asked about Sinisa Savija’s suicide, he contended that Savija had “previous psychological problems.” No “Survivor” or “Apprentice” contestants are known to have killed themselves, but in the past two decades several dozen reality-TV participants have. Levak eventually stopped consulting on such programs, in part because he feared that a contestant might harm himself. “I would think, Geez, if this should unravel, they’re going to look at the personality profile and there may have been a red flag,” he recalled.
Burnett excelled at the casting equation to the point where, on Season 2 of “Survivor,” which was shot in the Australian outback, his castaways spent so much time gossiping about the characters from the previous season that Burnett warned them, “The more time you spend talking about the first ‘Survivor,’ the less time you will have on television.” But Burnett’s real genius was in marketing. When he made the rounds in L.A. to pitch “Survivor,” he vowed that it would become a cultural phenomenon, and he presented executives with a mock issue of Newsweek featuring the show on the cover. (Later, “Survivor” did make the cover of the magazine.) Burnett devised a dizzying array of lucrative product-integration deals. In the first season, one of the teams won a care package that was attached to a parachute bearing the red-and-white logo of Target.
“I looked on ‘Survivor’ as much as a marketing vehicle as a television show,” Burnett once explained. He was creating an immersive, cinematic entertainment—and he was known for lush production values, and for paying handsomely to retain top producers and editors—but he was anything but precious about his art. Long before he met Trump, Burnett had developed a Panglossian confidence in the power of branding. “I believe we’re going to see something like the Microsoft Grand Canyon National Park,” he told the New York Times in 2001. “The government won’t take care of all that—companies will.”
Seven weeks before the 2016 election, Burnett, in a smart tux with a shawl collar, arrived with his third wife, the actress and producer Roma Downey, at the Microsoft Theatre, in Los Angeles, for the Emmy Awards. Both “Shark Tank” and “The Voice” won awards that night. But his triumphant evening was marred when the master of ceremonies, Jimmy Kimmel, took an unexpected turn during his opening monologue.
“Television brings people together, but television can also tear us apart,” Kimmel mused. “I mean, if it wasn’t for television, would Donald Trump be running for President?” In the crowd, there was laughter. “Many have asked, ‘Who is to blame for Donald Trump?’ ” Kimmel continued. “I’ll tell you who, because he’s sitting right there. That guy.” Kimmel pointed into the audience, and the live feed cut to a closeup of Burnett, whose expression resolved itself into a rigid grin. “Thanks to Mark Burnett, we don’t have to watch reality shows anymore, because we’re living in one,” Kimmel said. Burnett was still smiling, but Kimmel wasn’t. He went on, “I’m going on the record right now. He’s responsible. If Donald Trump gets elected and he builds that wall, the first person we’re throwing over it is Mark Burnett. The tribe has spoken.”
Around this time, Burnett stopped giving interviews about Trump or “The Apprentice.” He continues to speak to the press to promote his shows, but he declined an interview with me. Before Trump’s Presidential run, however, Burnett told and retold the story of how the show originated. When he met Trump at Wollman Rink, Burnett told him an anecdote about how, as a young man selling T-shirts on the boardwalk on Venice Beach, he had been handed a copy of “The Art of the Deal,” by a passing rollerblader. Burnett said that he had read it, and that it had changed his life; he thought, What a legend this guy Trump is!
Anyone else hearing this tale might have found it a bit calculated, if not implausible. Kym Gold, Burnett’s first wife, told me that she has no recollection of him reading Trump’s book in this period. “He liked mystery books,” she said. But when Trump heard the story he was flattered.
Burnett has never liked the phrase “reality television.” For a time, he valiantly campaigned to rebrand his genre “dramality”—“a mixture of drama and reality.” The term never caught on, but it reflected Burnett’s forthright acknowledgment that what he creates is a highly structured, selective, and manipulated rendition of reality. Burnett has often boasted that, for each televised hour of “The Apprentice,” his crews shot as many as three hundred hours of footage. The real alchemy of reality television is the editing—sifting through a compost heap of clips and piecing together an absorbing story. Jonathon Braun, an editor who started working with Burnett on “Survivor” and then worked on the first six seasons of “The Apprentice,” told me, “You don’t make anything up. But you accentuate things that you see as themes.” He readily conceded how distorting this process can be. Much of reality TV consists of reaction shots: one participant says something outrageous, and the camera cuts away to another participant rolling her eyes. Often, Braun said, editors lift an eye roll from an entirely different part of the conversation.
“The Apprentice” was built around a weekly series of business challenges. At the end of each episode, Trump determined which competitor should be “fired.” But, as Braun explained, Trump was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, Braun said, the editors were often obliged to “reverse engineer” the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense. During the making of “The Apprentice,” Burnett conceded that the stories were constructed in this way, saying, “We know each week who has been fired, and, therefore, you’re editing in reverse.” Braun noted that President Trump’s staff seems to have been similarly forced to learn the art of retroactive narrative construction, adding, “I find it strangely validating to hear that they’re doing the same thing in the White House.”
Such sleight of hand is the industry standard in reality television. But the entire premise of “The Apprentice” was also something of a con. When Trump and Burnett told the story of their partnership, both suggested that Trump was initially wary of committing to a TV show, because he was so busy running his flourishing real-estate empire. During a 2004 panel at the Museum of Television and Radio, in Los Angeles, Trump claimed that “every network” had tried to get him to do a reality show, but he wasn’t interested: “I don’t want to have cameras all over my office, dealing with contractors, politicians, mobsters, and everyone else I have to deal with in my business. You know, mobsters don’t like, as they’re talking to me, having cameras all over the room. It would play well on television, but it doesn’t play well with them.”
“The Apprentice” portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake,” Braun told me. “He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king.” Bill Pruitt, another producer, recalled, “We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.”
Trump maximized his profits from the start. When producers were searching for office space in which to stage the show, he vetoed every suggestion, then mentioned that he had an empty floor available in Trump Tower, which he could lease at a reasonable price. (After becoming President, he offered a similar arrangement to the Secret Service.) When the production staff tried to furnish the space, they found that local venders, stiffed by Trump in the past, refused to do business with them.
More than two hundred thousand people applied for one of the sixteen spots on Season 1, and throughout the show’s early years the candidates were conspicuously credentialled and impressive. Officially, the grand prize was what the show described as “the dream job of a lifetime”—the unfathomable privilege of being mentored by Donald Trump while working as a junior executive at the Trump Organization. All the candidates paid lip service to the notion that Trump was a peerless businessman, but not all of them believed it.
A standout contestant in Season 1 was Kwame Jackson, a young African-American man with an M.B.A. from Harvard, who had worked at Goldman Sachs. Jackson told me that he did the show not out of any desire for Trump’s tutelage but because he regarded the prospect of a nationally televised business competition as “a great platform” for career advancement. “At Goldman, I was in private-wealth management, so Trump was not, by any stretch, the most financially successful person I’d ever met or managed,” Jackson told me. He was quietly amused when other contestants swooned over Trump’s deal-making prowess or his elevated tastes—when they exclaimed, on tours of tacky Trump properties, “Oh, my God, this is so rich—this is, like, really rich!”
Fran Lebowitz once remarked that Trump is “a poor person’s idea of a rich person,” and Jackson was struck, when the show aired, by the extent to which Americans fell for the ruse. “Main Street America saw all those glittery things, the helicopter and the gold-plated sinks, and saw the most successful person in the universe,” he recalled. “The people I knew in the world of high finance understood it was all a joke.”
This is an oddly common refrain among people who were involved in “The Apprentice”: that the show was camp, and that the image of Trump as an avatar of prosperity was delivered with a wink. Somehow, this interpretation eluded the audience. Jonathon Braun marvelled, “People started taking it seriously!”
When I watched several dozen episodes of the show recently, I saw no hint of deliberate irony. Admittedly, it is laughable to hear the candidates, at a fancy meal, talk about watching Trump for cues on which utensil they should use for each course, as if he were Emily Post. But the show’s reverence for its pugnacious host, however credulous it might seem now, comes across as sincere.
Did Burnett believe what he was selling? Or was Trump another two-dollar T-shirt that he pawned off for eighteen? It’s difficult to say. One person who has collaborated with Burnett likened him to Harold Hill, the travelling fraudster in “The Music Man,” saying, “There’s always an angle with Mark. He’s all about selling.” Burnett is fluent in the jargon of self-help, and he has published two memoirs, both written with Bill O’Reilly’s ghostwriter, which double as manuals on how to get rich. One of them, titled “Jump In!: Even if You Don’t Know How to Swim,” now reads like an inadvertent metaphor for the Trump Presidency. “Don’t waste time on overpreparation,” the book advises.
At the 2004 panel, Burnett made it clear that, with “The Apprentice,” he was selling an archetype. “Donald is the real current-day version of a tycoon,” he said. “Donald will say whatever Donald wants to say. He takes no prisoners. If you’re Donald’s friend, he’ll defend you all day long. If you’re not, he’s going to kill you. And that’s very American. It’s like the guys who built the West.” Like Trump, Burnett seemed to have both a jaundiced impression of the gullible essence of the American people and a brazen enthusiasm for how to exploit it. “The Apprentice” was about “what makes America great,” Burnett said. “Everybody wants one of a few things in this country. They’re willing to pay to lose weight. They’re willing to pay to grow hair. They’re willing to pay to have sex. And they’re willing to pay to learn how to get rich.”
At the start of “The Apprentice,” Burnett’s intention may have been to tell a more honest story, one that acknowledged Trump’s many stumbles. Burnett surely recognized that Trump was at a low point, but, according to Walker, “Mark sensed Trump’s potential for a comeback.” Indeed, in a voice-over introduction in the show’s pilot, Trump conceded a degree of weakness that feels shockingly self-aware when you listen to it today: “I was seriously in trouble. I was billions of dollars in debt. But I fought back, and I won, big league.”
The show was an instant hit, and Trump’s public image, and the man himself, began to change. Not long after the première, Trump suggested in an Esquirearticle that people now liked him, “whereas before, they viewed me as a bit of an ogre.” Jim Dowd, Trump’s former publicist, told Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, the authors of the 2016 book “Trump Revealed,” that after “The Apprentice” began airing “people on the street embraced him.” Dowd noted, “All of a sudden, there was none of the old mocking,” adding, “He was a hero.” Dowd, who died in 2016, pinpointed the public’s embrace of “The Apprentice” as “the bridge” to Trump’s Presidential run.
The show’s camera operators often shot Trump from low angles, as you would a basketball pro, or Mt. Rushmore. Trump loomed over the viewer, his face in a jowly glower, his hair darker than it is now, the metallic auburn of a new penny. (“Apprentice” employees were instructed not to fiddle with Trump’s hair, which he dyed and styled himself.) Trump’s entrances were choreographed for maximum impact, and often set to a moody accompaniment of synthesized drums and cymbals.
The “boardroom”—a stage set where Trump determined which candidate should be fired—had the menacing gloom of a “Godfather” movie. In one scene, Trump ushered contestants through his rococo Trump Tower aerie, and said, “I show this apartment to very few people. Presidents. Kings.” In the tabloid ecosystem in which he had long languished, Trump was always Donald, or the Donald. On “The Apprentice,” he finally became Mr. Trump.
“We have to subscribe to our own myths,” the “Apprentice” producer Bill Pruitt told me. “Mark Burnett is a great mythmaker. He blew up that balloon and he believed in it.” Burnett, preferring to spend time pitching new ideas for shows, delegated most of the daily decisions about “The Apprentice” to his team, many of them veterans of “Survivor” and “Eco-Challenge.” But he furiously promoted the show, often with Trump at his side. According to many of Burnett’s collaborators, one of his greatest skills is his handling of talent—understanding their desires and anxieties, making them feel protected and secure. On interview tours with Trump, Burnett exhibited the studied instincts of a veteran producer: anytime the spotlight strayed in his direction, he subtly redirected it at Trump.
Burnett, who was forty-three when Season 1 aired, described the fifty-seven-year-old Trump as his “soul mate.” He expressed astonishment at Trump’s “laser-like focus and retention.” He delivered flattery in the ostentatiously obsequious register that Trump prefers. Burnett said he hoped that he might someday rise to Trump’s “level” of prestige and success, adding, “I don’t know if I’ll ever make it. But you know something? If you’re not shooting for the stars, you’re not shooting!” On one occasion, Trump invited Burnett to dinner at his Trump Tower apartment; Burnett had anticipated an elegant meal, and, according to an associate, concealed his surprise when Trump handed him a burger from McDonald’s.
Trump liked to suggest that he and Burnett had come up with the show “together”; Burnett never corrected him. When Carolyn Kepcher, a Trump Organization executive who appeared alongside Trump in early seasons of “The Apprentice,” seemed to be courting her own celebrity, Trump fired her and gave on-air roles to three of his children, Ivanka, Donald, Jr., and Eric. Burnett grasped that the best way to keep Trump satisfied was to insure that he never felt upstaged. “It’s Batman and Robin, and I’m clearly Robin,” he said.
Burnett sometimes went so far as to imply that Trump’s involvement in “The Apprentice” was a form of altruism. “This is Donald Trump giving back,” he told the Times in 2003, then offered a vague invocation of post-9/11 civic duty: “What makes the world a safe place right now? I think it’s American dollars, which come from taxes, which come because of Donald Trump.” Trump himself had been candid about his reasons for doing the show. “My jet’s going to be in every episode,” he told Jim Dowd, adding that the production would be “great for my brand.”
It was. Season 1 of “The Apprentice” flogged one Trump property after another. The contestants stayed at Trump Tower, did events at Trump National Golf Club, sold Trump Ice bottled water. “I’ve always felt that the Trump Taj Mahal should do even better,” Trump announced before sending the contestants off on a challenge to lure gamblers to his Atlantic City casino, which soon went bankrupt. The prize for the winning team was an opportunity to stay and gamble at the Taj, trailed by cameras.
“The Apprentice” was so successful that, by the time the second season launched, Trump’s lacklustre tie-in products were being edged out by blue-chip companies willing to pay handsomely to have their wares featured onscreen. In 2004, Kevin Harris, a producer who helped Burnett secure product-integration deals, sent an e-mail describing a teaser reel of Trump endorsements that would be used to attract clients: “Fast cutting of Donald—‘Crest is the biggest’ ‘I have worn Levis since I was 2’ ‘I love M&Ms’ ‘Unilever is the biggest company in the world’ all with the money money money song over the top.”
Burnett and Trump negotiated with NBC to retain the rights to income derived from product integration, and split the fees. On set, Trump often gloated about this easy money. One producer remembered, “You’d say, ‘Hey, Donald, today we have Pepsi, and they’re paying three million to be in the show,’ and he’d say, ‘That’s great, I just made a million five!’ ”
Originally, Burnett had planned to cast a different mogul in the role of host each season. But Trump took to his part more nimbly than anyone might have predicted. He wouldn’t read a script—he stumbled over the words and got the enunciation all wrong. But off the cuff he delivered the kind of zesty banter that is the lifeblood of reality television. He barked at one contestant, “Sam, you’re sort of a disaster. Don’t take offense, but everyone hates you.” Katherine Walker told me that producers often struggled to make Trump seem coherent, editing out garbled syntax and malapropisms.
“We cleaned it up so that he was his best self,” she said, adding, “I’m sure Donald thinks that he was never edited.” However, she acknowledged, he was a natural for the medium: whereas reality-TV producers generally must amp up personalities and events, to accentuate conflict and conjure intrigue, “we didn’t have to change him—he gave us stuff to work with.” Trump improvised the tagline for which “The Apprentice” became famous: “You’re fired.”
NBC executives were so enamored of their new star that they instructed Burnett and his producers to give Trump more screen time. This is when Trump’s obsession with television ratings took hold. “I didn’t know what demographics was four weeks ago,” he told Larry King. “All of a sudden, I heard we were No. 3 in demographics. Last night, we were No. 1 in demographics. And that’s the important rating.” The ratings kept rising, and the first season’s finale was the No. 1 show of the week. For Burnett, Trump’s rehabilitation was a satisfying confirmation of a populist aesthetic. “I like it when critics slam a movie and it does massive box office,” he once said. “I love it.” Whereas others had seen in Trump only a tattered celebrity of the eighties, Burnett had glimpsed a feral charisma.
On June 26, 2018, the day the Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s travel ban targeting people from several predominantly Muslim countries, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent out invitations to an event called a Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. If Pompeo registered any dissonance between such lofty rhetoric and Administration policies targeting certain religions, he didn’t mention it.
The event took place the next month, at the State Department, in Washington, D.C., and one of the featured speakers was Mark Burnett. In 2004, he had been getting his hair cut at a salon in Malibu when he noticed an attractive woman getting a pedicure. It was Roma Downey, the star of “Touched by an Angel,” a long-running inspirational drama on CBS. They fell in love, and married in 2007; together, they helped rear Burnett’s two sons from his second marriage and Downey’s daughter. Downey, who grew up in a Catholic family in Northern Ireland, is deeply religious, and eventually Burnett, too, reoriented his life around Christianity. “Faith is a major part of our marriage,” Downey said, in 2013, adding, “We pray together.”
For people who had long known Burnett, it was an unexpected turn. This was a man who had ended his second marriage during a live interview with Howard Stern. To promote “Survivor” in 2002, Burnett called in to Stern’s radio show, and Stern asked casually if he was married. When Burnett hesitated, Stern pounced. “You didn’t survive marriage?” he asked. “You don’t want your girlfriend to know you’re married?” As Burnett dissembled, Stern kept prying, and the exchange became excruciating. Finally, Stern asked if Burnett was “a single guy,” and Burnett replied, “You know? Yeah.” This was news to Dianne, Burnett’s wife of a decade. As she subsequently wrote in her memoir, “The 18-to-34 radio demographic knew where my marriage was headed before I did.”
In 2008, Burnett’s longtime business partner, a lawyer named Conrad Riggs, filed a lawsuit alleging that Burnett had stiffed him to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. According to the lawsuit, the two men had made an agreement before “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” that Riggs would own ten per cent of Burnett’s company. When Riggs got married, someone who attended the ceremony told me, Burnett was his best man, and gave a speech saying that his success would have been impossible without Riggs. Several years later, when Burnett’s company was worth half a billion dollars, he denied having made any agreement. The suit settled out of court. (Riggs declined to comment.)
Years ago, Burnett told Esquire religion was “a waste of time.” Dianne Burnett told me that when she was married to him he had no interest in faith. “But you know what? People change,” she continued. “So I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.” When Burnett met Downey, he reinvented himself. Having made a fortune producing television that was often exploitative, he announced that he would now focus exclusively on “family-friendly franchises,” declaring, “You don’t need to be mean to create drama.” Burnett and Downey launched a production company that has specialized in Christian-themed programming, including a hundred-million-dollar remake of “Ben-Hur,” which flopped. Burnett has spoken enthusiastically to colleagues about the role that prayer and religious devotion now play in his life. He and Downey describe themselves as “the noisiest Christians in Hollywood.”
Roma Downey in “Black Like Monica”
Kym Gold told me she thinks that Burnett tends to adapt to his current partner. Before he married Gold, who is Jewish, he took a six-week course in Judaism. “I’ve never known Mark to be religious,” Gold observed. But she noted that “people close to him have said, ‘He follows the wind.’ ”
Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor, is a friend of Burnett’s. “Mark is not at all the person he was a decade ago,” he told me. “Hollywood is built on money, sex, power, and fame. I would say that none of those things are driving forces for him anymore.” Warren assured me, unprompted, that Burnett is sincere in his Christianity—that he is a “genuine believer” who has committed to being an “ambassador” for his faith. Others who know Burnett noted to me that the Christian community is itself a significant viewer demographic. Burnett talks with colleagues about the “faith audience,” and describes the Christian community as “the largest army on earth.” In 2013, he and Downey produced “The Bible,” a History Channel miniseries that, Burnett claims, was watched by a hundred million people. The Good Book, in Burnett’s words, is “the ultimate period piece.”
At the State Department, Burnett mentioned religious intolerance “throughout the Middle East,” genocide in Darfur, and the persecution of religious minorities in Myanmar. “I’m simply a TV producer,” he said, noting that he was “far less educated” than his audience. But he was good at communicating with the masses, he went on. He explained his formula for storytelling: “K-I-S-S—‘Keep it simple, stupid.’ ” Burnett said that when he and Downey travel, strangers sometimes “ask her to lay her hands upon them,” as if she were actually an angel. This, he confided, is “the power of media.” He suggested that his position in Hollywood gave him some leverage when it came to pressing politicians to do the right thing: “In the end, nobody wants to look bad in the media.” But Burnett did not cite any controversial White House policies that he hoped to change; he didn’t even mention Trump’s name.
Burnett had remained close to the President. At the National Prayer Breakfast in 2017, he introduced Trump, saying that there “has never been a single bad word between us,” and describing their fourteen-year friendship as “one of the greatest relationships of my life.” Over the years, Burnett and Downey have given to Democratic causes, and in 2008 they donated the maximum contribution to Barack Obama’s campaign. But Burnett has never been especially political. One longtime “Apprentice” staff member told me that Burnett did not welcome the idea of losing his star to a Presidential campaign, noting, “Trump running for President cost Mark a lot of money. He made millions on ‘The Apprentice,’ and Trump killed the franchise.”
By the time Trump announced his campaign, ratings for “The Apprentice” had fallen, and the show had been repackaged as “The Celebrity Apprentice.” The contestants were now D-list celebrities, including Gary Busey, the zonked-out actor, and Gene Simmons, the repellent front man of Kiss. There were the same business challenges and boardroom eliminations, but the stakes felt conspicuously lower. A lot of the drama in the original “Apprentice” had stemmed from the idea that, for aspiring entrepreneurs, competing on the show could be a career-defining opportunity. For the aging, Botoxed cohort on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” their presence was a tacit admission that their best days were behind them. Still, everyone gamely pretended to take it seriously. Describing the show in one public appearance, Donald Trump, Jr., said that it could be intimidating for Trump’s children to pass judgment on someone “as accomplished as a Gene Simmons.”
In the opening episode of Season 11, the theatrical tension of the boardroom was suddenly punctured by an electronic trill. “Whose cell phone?” Trump growled.
“How do I turn this off?” Busey stuttered, fumbling with the tiny buttons.
“Gary, turn your cell phone off!” Trump said. It is strange to watch this kind of malarkey now and consider that only a few years later one of these men would be President.
“Donald mentioned a number of times, ‘Maybe I’ll run for President one day,’ ” Burnett told the Washington Post in January, 2016. “And sad to say, politics is kind of a TV show.” When Burnett was asked whether he supported Trump’s candidacy, he deflected the question, retreating behind his conceit that politics is simply entertainment by other means. “I have no idea about the politics,” he said, adding, “I have had great fun—great fun—watching it.”
After Trump won the election, he turned to his old friend for advice on the inaugural festivities. Like a starlet who keeps returning to a favorite director, Trump had always loved the way that Burnett made him look. Burnett was summoned to New York for a consultation with the President-elect and another Trump confidant, the financier Tom Barrack. Burnett pitched a few Riefenstahlian notions: a parade up Fifth Avenue; a televised helicopter ride ushering Trump from Manhattan to D.C. Barrack, who became the chairman of the inaugural committee, later said that Burnett was actively involved in producing the Inauguration, adding, “Mark is a genius, and the President-elect loves him.”
I spoke to several people who recalled Burnett telling them that he was busy working on the Inauguration. A Democratic political operative who was involved in a back-channel campaign to dissuade big-name stars from appearing at the event told me that Burnett had tried to enlist musicians to perform. “Mark was somebody we were actively working against,” the operative said. Trump’s wish list included Elton John, Aretha Franklin, and Paul Anka—who, he hoped, would sing “My Way”—but they all claimed to be otherwise engaged. The event ended up with sparse crowds and a feeble roster of performers.
Burnett eventually played down his role in the Inauguration. His representatives told me that “he did not produce” the event. One person who knows Burnett pointed out, “It wasn’t successful, so he probably doesn’t want to be associated with it.”
On October 8, 2016, the day after the Washington Post released the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump was caught on a hot mike bantering about grabbing women’s crotches, Bill Pruitt tweeted, “As a producer on seasons 1 & 2 of #theapprentice I assure you: when it comes to the #trumptapes there are far worse.” In other interviews, Pruitt said that, during his time on “The Apprentice,” he’d heard Trump make not only sexist statements but also racist ones. This was not so difficult to imagine. Trump’s natural idiom is vulgarity, and the targets of his ire—Colin Kaepernick, “shithole countries,” any African-American journalist who asks him a tough question—are clearly not chosen at random. Part of what was mesmerizing about him, to Mark Burnett and, ultimately, to the American people, was his compulsion for offensive talk.
But, in the heightened political atmosphere of an impending Trump Presidency, the notional existence of more “Trump tapes” assumed a potent urgency. Last summer, Omarosa Manigault Newman, the former “Apprentice” contestant and aide to the President, reignited such speculations when she claimed to have heard a tape, recorded during the period when “The Apprentice” was made, in which Trump said the N-word. Manigault Newman produced a recording of her own, taken surreptitiously, of a conversation with two aides from the Trump campaign, in which they appeared to discuss the existence of such a tape. On the recording, one of the aides, Lynne Patton, says that she raised the issue with Trump, and that he said he had no recollection of using such language. “No, he said it,” Katrina Pierson, the other aide, interjects. “He’s embarrassed.”
On August 13, 2018, Trump denied that he had ever used racial slurs, tweeting, “@MarkBurnettTV called to say that there are no tapes of the Apprentice where I used such a terrible and disgusting word as attributed by Wacky and Deranged Omarosa.”
This was a peculiar thing to tweet: if Trump had never uttered the epithet, why would he need to be assured by Burnett that there were no tapes of him doing so? The tweet was also notable because, when the “Access Hollywood” tape leaked, Burnett had taken his most definitive step toward distancing himself from Trump. In a statement, he had said, “Given all of the false media reports, I feel compelled to clarify a few points. I am not now and have never been a supporter of Donald Trump’s candidacy. I am not ‘Pro-Trump.’ Further, my wife and I reject the hatred, division and misogyny that has been a very unfortunate part of his campaign.”
Trump generally answers such criticism with a hyperventilating rebuttal, but he didn’t fire back at Burnett—at least not publicly—and their friendship does not appear to have suffered. Scarcely two months after issuing his statement about not being “Pro-Trump,” Burnett attended a fund-raiser for the President-elect at Cipriani, in New York, and in January, 2017, he and his two sons flew to Washington for the Inauguration. Burnett may have wanted to downplay his friendship with the President, but Trump felt no similar compunction. Last March, at a rally in Richfield, Ohio, he announced, “I got a call from Mark Burnett! He did ‘The Apprentice,’ he’s a great guy. He said, ‘Donald, I called just to say hello and to tell you, did you see Roseanne’s ratings?’ ” (Roseanne Barr, a rare Trump supporter in Hollywood, had just rebooted her sitcom.) “I said, ‘Mark, how big were they?’ ‘They were unbelievable! Over eighteen million people!’ ” When I asked Burnett’s representatives about the President’s characterizations of his exchanges with Burnett, they declined to either confirm or deny their accuracy.
Burnett’s reluctance to discuss the Trump Presidency is dismaying to many people involved with “The Apprentice,” given that Trump has succeeded in politics, in part, by borrowing the tropes of the show. Jonathon Braun pointed out to me that when Trump announced his candidacy, in 2015, he did so in the atrium of Trump Tower, and made his entrance by descending the gold-colored escalator—choreography that Burnett and his team had repeatedly used on the show. After Trump’s announcement, reports suggested that people who had filled the space and cheered during his speech had been hired to do so, like TV extras, for a day rate of fifty dollars. Earlier this year, the White House started issuing brief video monologues from the President that strongly evoke his appearances on Burnett’s show. Justin McConney, a former director of new media for the Trump Organization, told New York that, whenever Trump works with camera people, he instructs them, “Shoot me like I’m shot on ‘The Apprentice.’ ”
Randal Pinkett, who won Season 4 of “The Apprentice,” told me that he had watched Trump’s campaign with a growing sense of dread. Pinkett had long since concluded that Trump was racist. When Trump named Pinkett, who is African-American, the winner, he asked him if he would consider sharing the title with another contestant, a white woman. Pinkett declined. “The only conclusion I can draw is that he didn’t want to see a black man be the sole winner of his show,” he told me. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen said Trump told him that he had not chosen Kwame Jackson, the Goldman Sachs banker, to win in Season 1, because “there’s no way I can let this black fag win.”
As a winner, Pinkett went to work for the Trump Organization. “The closer I got to Donald, the less I liked what I saw,” he recalled. “It’s like a person with bad breath.” After Pennsylvania legalized casino gambling, in 2004, Trump applied for a license to build a casino in a predominantly African-American community. “The community hated Donald,” Pinkett said. So the company dispatched Pinkett as an advocate. Upon returning, he said, “I’m not going out there again to represent you folks.” The Trump Organization was using him like a prop, he felt, and he did not want to sell a project that the community so roundly opposed. The casino was never built. Even the grand prize on “The Apprentice” was a bit of a fake, Pinkett told me. His Trump Organization job was actually paid for by NBC. “It wasn’t even his money!” he said.
When Trump announced his campaign, Pinkett and Kwame Jackson decided to make a public statement opposing him. “This wasn’t about policy or politics, this was about fitness for office,” Jackson recalled. “This was about basic American character and decency.” They reached out to scores of former contestants and planned a press conference. In the end, apart from Pinkett, Jackson, and two other contestants, nobody showed up. In a statement, Trump said, “How quickly they forget. Nobody would know who they are if it weren’t for me.”
“I think the reality for Mark Burnett is he’s a Hollywood guy,” Jackson told me. “He probably feels that if he torpedoes Donald Trump he’ll torpedo a part of his own legacy. And it’s funny, because he has enough money and enough power in Hollywood that he could actually afford to speak up.” Burnett’s silence “is abdication,” Jackson said. “It’s collusion. It’s being complicit, just like an Ivanka Trump. I’m very disappointed in Mark for that.”
A recent piece in the Ankler, a widely read online newsletter about Hollywood, noted that Burnett “has spent the past couple years reigning over his corner of resistance territory with nary the slightest hint of backlash.” Donald Trump was a folk devil in Hollywood, and everyone in the industry knew about Burnett’s close association with the President, yet no prominent liberals were refusing to work with Mark Burnett. It’s one thing to “take brave stands on the red carpet,” the article observed. “But you wouldn’t want to go so crazy as to . . . get on the wrong side of a mid-sized mini-studio.”
Burnett was recruited to the television arm of M-G-M in 2015, by Gary Barber, the company’s chairman and C.E.O. Barber, a former accountant, had brought the studio back from bankruptcy, slashing costs and shepherding profitable titles like the James Bond franchise. In his effort to build up M-G-M, Barber wanted to augment the studio’s television business. So he bought Burnett’s company and enlisted him tooversee television production.
Ostensibly, Barber and Burnett got along. But, whereas Mark Burnett Productions had been characterized by profligate dazzle, Barber was thrifty, and monitored every expense. The chairman of M-G-M’s board is Kevin Ulrich, a financier whose private-equity fund holds a controlling stake in the company. People who know Ulrich describe him as someone who relishes the flashy perquisites of Hollywood moguldom. Whereas Barber liked to spend weekends quietly tending to the racehorses he owns, Ulrich liked going to parties and premières.
Barber was interested in selling the studio—a move that Ulrich opposed. According to several sources, Burnett began cultivating Ulrich, inviting him to events and introducing him to celebrities. Then, last March, M-G-M’s board informed Barber that he had been fired; he had just signed a contract extension, so the studio would pay him two hundred and sixty million dollars to leave. Despite this payment, he was incensed. Three months after Barber’s ouster, Burnett was promoted to chairman of television at M-G-M. Barber declined to speak with me, but a friend of his said that he was “blindsided” by his ouster: Burnett had made an alliance with Ulrich and got Barber kicked off the island.
As a younger man, Burnett made it known that he wasn’t content to be the producer of a few hit shows—he wanted to run a television studio one day. According to someone who has worked closely with him, Burnett had always felt like an outsider, “because in the reality-TV business, you’re never part of the true Hollywood.” He had long aspired to transition to scripted television and films but did not have much talent for such storytelling. At M-G-M, he would oversee both scripted and unscripted shows, including the acclaimed series “Fargo” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
He had now achieved such a level of power that, even in reflexively liberal Hollywood, his association with Trump was discussed mostly in whispers. Many people who spoke to me for this piece would not do so on the record, citing fears of being blacklisted. Nevertheless, “The Apprentice” continues to dog Burnett. In 2017, when he took the stage at the Producers Guild of America Awards to accept the award for Outstanding Producer of Competition Television, there were boos in the audience. In September, he skipped the Emmy Awards, though “The Voice” and “Shark Tank” were nominated; the night before the ceremony, however, he and Downey attended the annual gala for the Motion Picture & Television Fund, at a hotel in Century City. Walking into the event, they had a confrontation with the actor Tom Arnold.
Arnold, a wild-eyed industry veteran best known for his role in the 1994 film “True Lies” and for a former marriage to Roseanne Barr, had been on a quest to uncover damaging “Apprentice” outtakes of Donald Trump. He had even launched a gonzo TV show, produced by Vice, called “The Hunt for the Trump Tapes.” As Arnold relates on the show, he and Trump knew each other for years, because they had occupied “the same level of Hollywood.” Indeed, in 2010, Burnett had e-mailed Arnold, “Is there any way I can get you to do Celeb Apprentice? . . . I do think that Celeb Apprentice has an awesome brand. Trump really wants you. I really want you.” Arnold was, in his own estimation, a prankster and a marginal celebrity. And it disturbed him to think that someone just like him might be entrusted with managing the country.
What precisely happened in Century City is a matter of dispute, but there was a scuffle between Arnold and Burnett. Soon afterward, Roma Downey tweeted a photograph of the back of her hand, writing, “Got this bruise tonight when Tom Arnold tried to ambush my husband Mark and me at a charity event. Is your TV show worth it Tom? Please stop.” Some observers wondered whether a bruise could have emerged that quickly. Arnold himself offered a very different account on Twitter: “Mark Burnett just went apeshit & choked me at this huge Emmy party then he ran away with his torn Pink shirt & missing gold chain. I’m waiting for LAPD.”
It might seem improbable that Burnett, the smiling glad-hander, would physically attack someone. But it would not be unprecedented. His second wife, Dianne Burnett, told me that one day, in Santa Monica, Mark left her and one of their sons in the car in order to fetch frozen yogurt. While he was gone, a vagrant began aggressively banging on the car window, presumably in search of a donation. When Burnett returned, Dianne recalled, he punched the man in the face, knocking him down, then drove away.
Hours after the Century City event, TMZ published an account by an eyewitness, who said that “Mark had his hands on Tom’s throat, and Tom was tearing at Mark’s shirt and ripping off his crucifix.” The authorities have declined to press charges against Burnett, and several people close to him characterized Arnold as a puerile stunt artist who cornered Burnett in a bit of performance art in order to promote his lousy show.
That may well be true, but there is a certain cosmic poetry in the notion that the only person in Hollywood willing to antagonize Burnett about his relationship with Trump is a figure like Tom Arnold. Someone who has worked with Burnett told me, “Mark created the world in which Tom Arnold is the only guy who can go after him. Tom Arnold is trolling Mark Burnett just like Donald Trump trolled all his opponents. And he’s doing it for a reality show!”
After Season 1 of “Survivor,” a contestant named Stacey Stillman sued CBS and Burnett, claiming that he had improperly shaped the competition by whispering to contestants about whom they should vote to eliminate. In a deposition, another cast member said that Burnett “believed that certain people would make a better TV show than others, and he did what he could to have influence over those people staying on the island.” Burnett denied any wrongdoing, and the suit was ultimately settled. One consequence of the lawsuit was that, when it came time to make “The Apprentice,” producers tried to have cameras on Donald Trump from the moment he walked onto the set until the moment he left—and all that footage was preserved. When M-G-M bought Burnett’s company, it assumed ownership of those outtakes and, after the “Access Hollywood” tape leaked, it had to contend with public demands to unseal the “Apprentice” tapes.
Marvin Putnam, a lawyer who represents M-G-M, told me, “Mark Burnett cannot release the tapes. Period. Even if Mark Burnett wanted to release the tapes, Mark Burnett cannot release the tapes.” Putnam explained that the contracts that Trump and other cast members signed contained standard industry stipulations limiting the manner in which outtakes and other footage could be used. These are binding obligations, which means that if M-G-M were to violate them—by releasing footage not just of Trump but of anyone who appeared with him onscreen—the studio could be sued. Brian Edwards, the president of television operations at M-G-M, who has worked with Burnett for more than a decade, pointed out that, even without such legal constraints, Burnett couldn’t release the tapes—if he did, talent would refuse to work with him in the future. “If everybody in reality television knew that their outtakes were going to be made public at the first sign of pressure, what do you think would happen to the business?” Edwards asked.
Neither Putnam nor Edwards would comment on whether M-G-M possesses tapes in which Trump says something offensive; nor would they say how much, if any, of the archive has been reviewed. Over the fourteen seasons hosted by Trump, nearly two hundred hours of “The Apprentice” aired on NBC. If Burnett indeed shot three hundred hours of footage for each episode, there could be some sixty thousand hours of outtakes to sift through.
Most of the former “Apprentice” staffers I spoke to recalled hearing Trump speak coarsely about women. “He wasn’t going around saying ‘pussy, pussy, pussy’ all the time,” Walker said. But he regularly made comments about the bodies of female contestants and female staffers. One “Apprentice” employee told me, “He’d say, ‘How about those boobs? Wouldn’t you like to fuck her?’ ”
Even so, Braun said he doubted that there was any “Apprentice” tape in which Trump uses the N-word. “I was the supervising editor on the first six seasons,” he said. “I didn’t watch every frame, but in everything I saw I didn’t hear him saying anything so horrible.” Braun noted that editors on reality shows often amuse themselves by compiling “gag” reels of a cast member’s most off-color or embarrassing moments. The producers may be barred, legally, from airing such outtakes, but that doesn’t stop editors from sharing them internally. Tom Arnold told me that he has seen one such reel from “The Apprentice,” in which Trump uses the N-word. But Braun, who is dismayed that Trump is President, is dubious. “If there was a tape, it would have spread like wildfire,” he said. Another “Apprentice” staffer made the same point: “If somebody had the goods, it would have leaked long ago. There were no Trump fans on the set. I don’t know a single person who worked on the show who voted for Trump.”
Whenever Trump appeared on the show, the staffer explained, there were “at least a hundred people watching him,” with a dozen cameras capturing every angle. Live feeds were transmitted to executives not just at NBC but at corporations sponsoring the episode. The staffer continued, “In the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, Donald was on a bus. He thought he was alone. He never thought he was alone in the boardroom. It was a set.”
To Braun, the hunt for the tapes feels like a distraction. “We’ve seen that it doesn’t matter,” he said. “He now says plenty of things that are outwardly racist, misogynist, and fascist. It just doesn’t hurt him.” After Manigault Newman made her claims about the “Apprentice” tapes, The Economist conducted a survey, and found that seventy-seven per cent of white Trump voters felt that “it is possible that a person who uses the ‘N-word’ while in office can still be a good President.” More than a third of white Trump voters admitted to using the word themselves.
Kym Gold of True Religion
One day this past fall, Burnett got a call from his first wife, Kym Gold, with whom he remains friendly. Gold was upset about what was happening in the country, and asked Burnett to intervene with Trump. “We had it out,” she told me. “I said, ‘You’ve got to help our children, for the future and safety of this country.’ ” Gold implored Burnett, “Tell him this is not a reality show. This is real life. You’re the President. You’re saying things you cannot say—to reporters, to other world leaders.”
Burnett heard her out. “I’m not into politics,” he told her. “I’m not even on Twitter.” But he said that he had no intention of speaking out against Trump or of releasing any tapes. “I’m just a guy who produces shows,” he insisted.
Burnett may not be a policy maven, but he has long been fascinated with political star power. In 2010, he launched “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” on TLC, announcing, “With a dynamic personality that has captivated millions, I can’t think of anyone more compelling than Sarah Palin to tell the story of Alaska.” At the time, Burnett contended that the show was “completely nonpolitical.” The Daily Beast disagreed, suggesting that it “may qualify as the earliest, most expensive Presidential campaign ad ever made.”
Burnett and Trump have licensed the “Apprentice” format to dozens of other countries, and Burnett once noted that, increasingly, tycoons cast in the Trump role are “people with political aspirations.” At least half a dozen hosts have held political office, including João Doria, the governor-elect of São Paulo State, who is an ally of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s strongman President-elect. Last year, Kevin O’Leary, one of the hosts of “Shark Tank,” announced his intention of running for Prime Minister of Canada, as a member of the Conservative Party, noting that he and Trump had “both worked for Mark Burnett, and we both got famous on reality television.” Burnett joked to more than one person that he was no longer simply a TV producer but a producer of political leaders. (Four months later, O’Leary dropped out of the race and returned to the show.)
For nearly two decades, Burnett has also spoken about his desire to make a television show with Vladimir Putin. In 2001, he sought to enlist Putin in a project called “Destination: Mir,” a reality competition in which the winner would be sent into space. The idea was scuttled after Russia decommissioned the Mir space station. In 2015, Burnett expressed an interest in building a reality show featuring Putin—not so much a program about politics, Burnett suggested, as a hymn to the glory of Russia, “the humans, the nature, the animals of the nation.”
Burnett’s myopia about politics may be selective, but that does not mean it is feigned. He would hardly be the first Hollywood chieftain with a dim grasp of current events beyond Los Angeles, but even by industry standards he can seem remarkably disconnected. Shortly after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, this past February, Burnett attended a regular meeting of television executives at M-G-M. At one point, someone mentioned the marketing plan for a project in the studio’s film division: a remake of “Death Wish,” starring Bruce Willis. The movie, about an armed vigilante, was unabashedly pro-gun—Breitbart eventually hailed it as an “N.R.A. Public Service Announcement.” Someone asked whether M-G-M would be altering the rollout of the film, in light of the shooting.
“What shooting?” Burnett said, according to someone outside M-G-M who was briefed on the meeting. When his incredulous colleagues wondered how he could not have been aware of the Parkland massacre, Burnett said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” adding, “I’m not on social media.”
For all Burnett’s talk about being nonpolitical, his reluctance to disavow the President may stem, in part, from a fear of alienating Trump’s constituents. Like Republican lawmakers or evangelical pastors, Burnett is beholden to a faction of the public that, in many instances, thinks the President can do no wrong. “The moment you go political, you turn half of the nation against you,” Rick Warren told me. “And, when you’re trying to reach as many people as you can, you don’t want to do that.” The dilemma is compounded, Warren pointed out, when the occupant of the White House is so vindictive. “You know the way this President chews up people?” Warren said. “There’s a fine line in what you can say.”
Katherine Walker suggested that part of the reason Burnett seems so unfazed by the role he has played in the Trump saga may be that he is British. “There is something to being American and having these visceral reactions that Mark doesn’t have,” she said. “He just doesn’t get it on that level. I don’t think he has the same sense of Oh, my God, what have I done?” For many Americans, the Trump Presidency evokes a painful feeling of dispossession, as cherished norms and national institutions are eviscerated. “People are making it seem like Mark’s ignoring evil,” Walker continued. “But I think it’s more benign than that—and scarier, in a way. He doesn’t care. He just wants to stay out of it.”
“Mark is extremely smart,” Richard Levak, the psychologist who consulted for Burnett on “The Apprentice,” told me. “Mark has an eye for casting, and he cast Donald Trump.” I asked Levak what kind of personality profile he might have prepared for Trump as a candidate for the show. He said he would have noted “the energy, the impulsiveness, the inability to articulate a complete thought because he gets interrupted by emotions, so when he speaks it’s all adjectives—‘great,’ ‘huge,’ ‘horrible.’ ” What made Trump so magnetic as a reality-television star was his impulse to transgress, Levak continued, and it is the same quality that has made a captive audience of the world. “That somebody can become that successful while also being that emotionally undisciplined—it’s so macabre that you have to watch it,” he said. “And you keep waiting for the comeuppance. But it doesn’t come.”
There has likely never been a man who, in his own lifetime, has been as widely spoken and written about as Donald Trump. Politics has never been so spellbinding. “It’s the reason people watch a schoolyard fight,” Levak said. “It’s vicariously watching someone act out and get away with it.” Burnett once remarked that “Lord of the Flies” is so absorbing because all the characters are suddenly transported into a world in which “the rules are changed, and convention, law, and morality are suspended.” It’s an apt paraphrase of the Trump Presidency.
On Sunday afternoons, Burnett likes to pour himself a generous glass of wine and stroll out onto the balcony of his seven-thousand-square-foot home, off the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. He and Downey refer to the property, which was undamaged by the recent wildfires, as the Sanctuary. It is an exquisite spot, with white couches facing an unbroken view of the ocean. Burnett likes to reflect on the fact that his mansion is not far from one of the homes where, as a young immigrant, he worked as a nanny. He is on social media, as it happens. He seldom tweets, but he’s active on Instagram. Along with family snapshots and photographs of Burnett palling around with celebrities and religious figures, there are a couple of videos he has taken of himself relaxing on the balcony.
“Lazy Sunday afternoon,” Burnett says in one of them. He is barefoot, wearing a T-shirt that says “spiritual gangster.” He gestures at his expansive view, with undisguised satisfaction, and says, “Look at this. Wow.” He pans the camera across the sky, which is just starting to bruise red and violet in the twilight. “So grateful,” Burnett says. He often expresses wonderment at how blessed he is, and at the magnitude of his success—which, these days, he ascribes to “God’s favor.”
When I remarked to Jonathon Braun that Burnett seems eerily untroubled by the legacy of his own creation, he said that, for Burnett, the Presidency was just another game. He went on, “I think it’s a game for Trump, too. It’s a game for the audience. I think the voters like it. They’re enjoying the spectacle. It’s in the soul of who Mark is. They’re kindred spirits. There are no major causes driving them—it’s just about playing a game and winning it.”
Years ago, when Burnett did publicity for “Survivor,” interviewers tried to figure out how the contestants had fared that season. Of course, he could not reveal such secrets. So when they asked Burnett who would win the game, he told them, “Me.” ♦