Every day at Trump Tower in New York City, life is imitating art.

In ways big and small, President-elect Donald Trump is reprising his leading role in “The Apprentice” as he prepares to take control of the executive branch of the federal government.

Trump’s television show was launched in 2004 and became a smash hit, drawing 20 million viewers a week and turning the real estate entrepreneur into a household name. The concept was a season-long competition between 16 ambitious contestants, with the prize for the winner being a job managing an arm of the Trump empire. Trump narrowed the field each week one by one, as the candidates tried, and generally failed, to please him.

Each episode ended with his catchphrase: “You’re fired!”

Trump Tower, New York City

Trump Tower in New York City was the venue where Trump vetted his potential employees in “The Apprentice.” In a sense, it still is.


Now, Trump’s search for Cabinet candidates mirrors the way he picked and chose among contestants for the show. The events are being stage-managed in much the same way. Even the venue — 721 Fifth Ave., New York City, known as Trump Tower—is the same.

Instead of 16 slots, there are 21 in the presidential Cabinet, including 15 that will manage executive departments like the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy and the Labor Department. Six other jobs include roles at places like the Office of Management and Budget, the Small Business Administration and the United Nations.

The titles of the first four episodes of “The Apprentice” were “Meet the Billionaire,” “Sex, Lies and Altitude,” “Respect” and “Ethics, Smethics.”

In the TV show, cameras rolled as the characters were shown purposefully entering the grand entrance of the Trump Tower. As they prepared to display their abilities and talents to Trump, they said little or nothing. Trump talked about his accomplishments in a voiceover.

Today, in the Cabinet version of “The Apprentice,” an early morning press briefing outlines who will be arriving at Trump Tower each day for an interview or meeting with Trump.

Then the contestants — err, candidates — arrive on schedule. On Nov. 20, for example, there were 10 people on the daily lineup for consideration as potential administration hires and advisors.

At least one had a reality show affiliation: Talent agent Ari Emanuel, who has represented Trump in negotiations with NBC. (Emanuel is the brother of Rahm Emanuel, former adviser to President Obama. A third brother is Ezekiel, who helped shape the Affordable Care Act for Obama.)

Two others that day were Cabinet contenders. Wilbur Ross and John Kelly have both since been nominated for Cabinet seats — Ross as secretary of commerce and Kelly as head of homeland security.

Just like in the TV show, the candidates willingly exposed themselves to scrutiny, ridicule and the possibility of public rejection in exchange for a shot at running an arm of the Trump operation.

Mitt Romney, for example, visited with the president-elect on Nov. 19, first at Trump’s golf course and then over a French dinner at a posh Central Park restaurant. Then Romney was allowed to twist in the wind for nearly a month before Trump announced that he had instead selected Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state.

Just as in the television program, most of the candidates say nothing as they arrive at Trump Tower, not even making eye contact with the reporters watching and waiting. Shouted questions from the media are ignored.

Apprentice logo

One of the logos for “The Apprentice.”


On the show, the contestants were allowed to make a few statements as they departed, particularly if they were exiting the stage for the last time after being fired.

When the Cabinet candidates depart for the day, they too are permitted to say a few words. Many of them use the opportunity to praise the president-elect.

That can be a surprising reversal for people who previously criticized him harshly. Former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, for example, said in March that she was “kind of horrified” by Trump.

But as she exited Trump Tower on Dec. 12, reportedly being considered for an intelligence post, she sounded a lot more like the TV contestants.

“First I want to say, he has really cool stuff in his office,” she told the press gaggle. “All of these athletes have given him all this incredible memorabilia. I was particularly taken by the Shaq O’Neal shoe, which is huge. I guess it takes a champion to know a champion.”

Back in March, Romney had called Trump “a phony, a fraud,” but he gushed over Trump during his job interview. “I had a wonderful evening with President-elect Trump,” Romney said Nov. 29.

Some of the people who played roles in the production of the program are making appearances now as well.

On TV, contestants demonstrated the same enthusiasm and joy over their encounters with Trump. This kind of fawning behavior seems to win his favor.

Gaining personal access to Trump and the things he owned was a driving objective for the contestants on his program.

The winning team on one early episode, for example, was rewarded with a visit to Trump’s over-the-top rococco apartment, a mini-Versailles in the sky, and an introduction to the mistress of the house, a woman identified as Trump’s girlfriend, Melania.

“How do you clean it?,” asked one spellbound guest.

“We have people to clean,” said Melania.

Some of the people who played roles in the production of the program are making appearances now as well. Mark Burnett, the former executive producer (strangely, Trump was also given the title of “executive producer”), is reportedly helping to orchestrate the inauguration festivities.

That would make some sense. Burnett is widely credited with helping burnish Trump’s image during production of “The Apprentice.”

Burnett was seen by the press corps exiting Trump Tower on Tuesday — another interesting reversal for a person who had previously denounced Trump. In October, Burnett issued a statement saying he was not and had never been a Trump supporter.

A former cast member, Omarosa Manigault, who played an adversarial role on “The Apprentice” and was fired by Trump, has been serving as director of African-American outreach for him. She was spotted visiting Trump’s offices Tuesday and Wednesday.

The TV program was in many ways a branding exercise, with each episode presenting an opportunity to promote one Trump project or another — his jet, his golf course, his favorite table at a restaurant he was marketing.

During the filming, the contestants were depicted living together in what was called a suite in Trump Tower. That was presented as a great stroke of luck for them. As Trump said on the first episode of the show, Trump Tower is “one of the great buildings of the world.”

Now the Trump brand will in essence be on the White House.

It’s hard to know with Trump how much is real and how much is just show biz.

Episodes of the show suggest he values strong, affirmative team players who deliver quantifiable results, people able to make crisp decisions. In Trump’s world, people are primarily motivated by money and opulent material possessions; they are punished for unethical behavior only if it is also exposed as tacky. Sex sells. The sizzle is worth more than the steak.

He can be ruthless. People who fail will be tossed to the curb, he told his TV audience over and over again.

“It’s the suite or the street,” he said.

The titles of the first four episodes of the program were “Meet the Billionaire,” “Sex, Lies and Altitude,” “Respect” and “Ethics, Smethics.”

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