Trump was probably duped in his first meeting with the man who made him president

Mark Burnett congratulates then reality TV star Donald Trump in 2007.
Mark Burnett congratulates then reality TV star Donald Trump in 2007.
Image: Reuters/Chris Pizzello
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Mark Burnett, the pioneering reality-television producer behind the blockbuster hits Survivor and The Apprentice, has been called the man who made Donald Trump’s presidency possible.

As a new profile of him in the New Yorker describes it (paywall), in making The Apprentice, which aired from 2004 to 2017 and starred Trump as the king of a corporate jungle for the first 14 seasons, Burnett turned Trump, a onetime “garish figure of local interest—a punch line on Page Six” into “an icon of American success.”

Indeed, with some carefully calibrated camera angles and smart editing, Trump became a powerful and revered figure in the eyes of many viewers. The show fetishized what appeared to be Trump’s wealth, even when it was widely known that Trump had endured several bankruptcies.

The New Yorker story, by journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, features a number of telling details, drawing parallels between the rise of The Apprentice and the rise of Trump the politician. For instance, the show’s producers would have to rework an episode whenever Trump “fired” a candidate without warning. To create a narrative that made sense to the audience, the editors would go back through the tape looking for moments with the cast-off candidate that might look like missteps. One former editor of The Apprentice told the reporter, “I find it strangely validating to hear that they’re doing the same thing in the White House.”

But one moment stands out as the perfect encapsulation of a dynamic that Trump’s critics have observed again and again in Trump’s presidency: Trump becomes incredibly easy to manipulate once under the spell of a flattering comment. Burnett, now the chairman of MGM’s Worldwide Television Group, apparently figured that out early on, and has bragged about it.

In a speech Burnett gave in 2013, before Trump began his presidential run, he told the origin story of The Apprentice to an audience in Vancouver, the New Yorker reports. Only this one differed from what we’ve seen in the press before: that is, the story of Burnett seeing Trump’s name all over Wollman skating rink in New York’s Central Park in 2002, when Burnett was filming the final episode in the fourth season of Survivor. According to the more commonly shared version of events, Burnett subsequently made an appointment to meet Trump in his office to pitch the show, and Trump immediately accepted.

In 2013, however, Burnett said his first encounter with Trump occurred at the rink itself. Keefe writes:

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. The Trump 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!”

Burnett also apparently dropped a mention of Trump’s ghostwritten best-selling memoir, The Art of the Deal. Keefe writes:

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 would not speak to the New Yorker, and he has declined since the lead up to 2016 US election to comment on Trump and their history together.

When the Access Hollywood tape leaked ahead of election day, and Trump was heard by the American public speaking vulgarly about grabbing women, Burnett, who became a devout Christian in his third marriage, issued a statement: “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.”

But, according to the New Yorker story, his disdain for Trump the politician only goes so far. When Burnett’s first wife, still a friend, called the television executive this fall, asking him to speak to the president about migrant children at the border and the country’s safety, he told her he wouldn’t be speaking to Trump about her concerns. “I’m just a guy who produces shows,” Burnett reportedly said.