“The Apprentice” may have (temporarily) saved Trump from financial ruin

Cash came pouring in right when he desperately needed some.
Cash came pouring in right when he desperately needed some.
Image: Reuters/Tom Brenner
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In the mid-2000s, Donald Trump was drowning financially. That’s when NBC and The Apprentice threw the failed businessman a life raft.

According to a New York Times report on the US president’s taxes, Trump made $427 million off his 50% stake in The Apprentice and the subsequent licensing deals the NBC reality series helped to develop. At the time The Apprentice debuted in 2004, many of Trump’s business ventures were hemorrhaging millions, and he was about to lose his ability to exploit a loophole in US tax code that let him avoid paying taxes for years.

But then The Apprentice swooped in, which not only kept Trump’s finances afloat but also rescued his brand from the brink of irrelevance. Trump hosted the show—filmed on a makeshift boardroom set within Trump Tower—from 2004 until 2015, when he announced a run for US president. Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced Trump as host for one season before the show was canceled in 2017.

The Apprentice made Trump appear as though he were an expert business mogul—an image he ran on in 2016 and one he continues to tout as he seeks re-election. That illusion of success was not backed up by Trump’s financial reality, the Times reported. Losses from some of his golf clubs and hotels total in the hundreds of millions. He is still personally responsible for debts and loans worth $421 million.

Before the series premiered, Trump owned only two golf courses. By the time Trump left it in 2015, he owned 15. The windfall from The Apprentice, the Times reported, financed investments in new businesses that regularly operated at losses, and entitled Trump to tax deductions.

Trump also wrote off some elements of The Apprentice as business expenses on his tax forms, according to the Times. He wrote off over $70,000 for his own hairstyling and more than $95,000 for hair and makeup styling for his daughter, Ivanka. Trump paid no federal income tax in 11 of the 17 years the Times examined. In 2017, he paid $750 in taxes.

Without the influx of cash enabled by The Apprentice, it’s unclear if Trump would have found a way out of impending financial doom. And he still may not be able to. His profits from the NBC series have already dried up, according to the Times. Many observers have convincingly argued his 2016 bid for president was an attempt to once again revive his fading brand and improve a worsening financial situation.

Trump’s long relationship with the network that aired The Apprentice, NBC, propelled the struggling businessman’s quest for fame. It may have also prevented (or, at least, prolonged) him from falling into insolvency. But when Trump becomes a US civilian again, the financial mess will remain—provided another TV show doesn’t come in to bail him out.