Trump Stories: The Apprentice 13 years ago, one TV show changed how the world saw Donald Trump. Today, the story of how it became a hit, why it may have helped his eventual election and how the people involved feel about it now. Follow Kelly McEvers @kellymcevers and producers @TomDreisbach and @cbndrv. Email us at embedded@npr.org
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Trump Stories: The Apprentice

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Trump Stories: The Apprentice

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED. There's this guy you might have heard of. His name's Mark Burnett. He grew up in England. He was a paratrooper during the war in the Falklands. And then he moved to the U.S. and worked as a nanny and a driver. And at one point, he does this endurance race and thinks someone should make a show about that kind of thing. And he makes a show called "Survivor," which goes on to be this really successful reality TV show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So one day, Mark Burnett is out in the jungle. He's filming "Survivor." He's missing his kid, who's in New York. And he starts thinking about the concrete jungle that is Manhattan. And he wonders, what if we made a "Survivor"-style show about business - like, where people compete to work for a billionaire? So back in New York, he calls Donald Trump to see if he'd be interested - Burnett and Trump had recently met in an event. And Trump says, come see me right now. And as Mark Burnett tells the story, he goes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK BURNETT: He said a lot of people have pitched me reality show ideas. They're silly. They want to see me combing my hair, living in my apartment. There's nothing smart about that.

MCEVERS: But this idea about people competing to work for me, Trump says...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURNETT: You know what? I love this. I want to do this.

MCEVERS: So Burnett goes to talk to Trump's agent, but the agent says it's a terrible idea - no way. Burnett goes back to Trump, tells him what the agent said - this is Burnett telling the story at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURNETT: Mr. Trump stood up from behind his desk.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: He walked around and said, correct me if I'm wrong. Didn't I just give you my word? Didn't I say we were making this?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: We are going to make it. We're going to make a deal right now - just you and me. He said, and by the way, Norma (ph), get in touch with the agent and tell him, you're fired.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: The new show, of course, was "The Apprentice," this reality competition to become an apprentice in real life to Donald Trump - like, an actual job. Burnett starts pitching it around to the networks. And at the time, NBC was in some trouble. Its big Thursday-night powerhouse "Friends" was going off the air. Back then, Jeff Zucker was the head of entertainment at NBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF ZUCKER: Being from New York, I understood what a publicity magnet Donald Trump was. So my thinking was - I knew, if nothing else, it would generate a tremendous amount of publicity.

MCEVERS: This is Zucker talking to The Washington Post's Lois Romano at Harvard last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZUCKER: Because if you came out of New York, especially in that era, you knew that he was the front page of the tabloids all the time. And I thought that that would be good for a new show that needed publicity. It turned out to be right. It turned out to be a huge phenomenon. And, you know, Trump delivered on PR. He delivered on big ratings. You know, he would always claim the ratings were bigger than they were, but that was OK.

LOIS ROMANO: He's still doing that.

ZUCKER: Well, OK, you know, some things stay the same.

MCEVERS: Jeff Zucker was right. That first season of "The Apprentice," the ratings were so good that Zucker starts introducing Donald Trump as the man who saved NBC. That's how big of a deal the show was.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Zucker is now the head of CNN, which covered Trump a lot during the campaign. And he declined to talk to us about Trump. But earlier this year, the New York Times Magazine reported on how Zucker looks back on his decision to greenlight "The Apprentice." Let me just read a paragraph from that article about Zucker and Trump.

(Reading) Last spring, as Trump was steaming toward the Republican nomination, Zucker ran into him in the men's room in the network's Washington bureau. Trump was powdering his face before an interview. You think any of this would have happened without "The Apprentice," Trump asked as Zucker moved past him. Nope, Zucker answered.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My name's Donald Trump, and I'm the largest real estate developer in New York. I own buildings all over the place, model agencies, the Miss Universe pageant.

MCEVERS: Some of you might have watched "The Apprentice" when it was on TV starting back in 2004. Some of you might not have.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

TRUMP: And private resorts like Mar-a-Lago, one of the most spectacular estates anywhere in the world. But it wasn't always so easy. About 13 years ago, I was seriously in trouble. I was billions of dollars in debt. But I fought back, and I won big league. And I worked it all out. Now my company's bigger than it ever was and stronger...

MCEVERS: And even though Donald Trump did exaggerate the show's ratings, the fact is this - tens of millions of people did watch "The Apprentice," especially in that first season. Before the show, people already knew who Donald Trump was, but "The Apprentice" got people to know him in a new way. Like, by positioning him as the ultimate prize it encouraged us, the viewers, to want to be like him. And that him we wanted to be like was a character who was carefully crafted by producers, editors, network execs and the man himself. All of this would be pretty interesting no matter where Donald Trump had ended up, but now he's the guy with the nuclear codes. And a reality TV show in part made that happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: This is a little different than what we usually do on our show. For our latest round of episodes, we're telling the stories of what Donald Trump and his closest advisers were doing before they got to the White House because this is a president who has no record of public service, but he does have a record in business and on TV. So today you're going to hear how "The Apprentice" got to be such a huge deal and meet some of the folks who made that happen. Whether they liked it or not is another thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: OK, so let's back up to that point where NBC has agreed to do the show. Remember, reality TV is kind of a new thing at this point. Rob LaPlante was hired to be the casting director for "The Apprentice." And he says show producers put ads on TV and in the newspapers for contestants. And the first casting call was at Trump Tower in Manhattan.

ROB LAPLANTE: In the lobby of Trump Tower, which is now that infamous lobby that we all had seen.

MCEVERS: You remember two years ago when Trump came down the escalator and announced he was running for president. Anyway, 2003, the casting call - and LaPlante says something happened that surprised him.

LAPLANTE: The first thing that I noticed that morning which blew my mind was the line. Wrapped around Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue and then all the way down 56th Street for blocks, there were a thousand people in line to try out for a show that no one had ever even known or heard of to this point. And that was my first introduction to the fact that this guy, Donald Trump, is something more than just a celebrity and a businessman. He is this hero. I've cast reality shows and produced reality shows for years, and most of the motivation for people wanting to be on them, even if it's a dating show, even if it's whatever it is, is they want to be on TV. They want to get the fame. Rarely had I ever seen people who so legitimately just wanted to meet Donald, be like Donald. It was like - it was like a cult.

MCEVERS: Like, people showed up with their copy of Trump's book, "The Art Of The Deal."

LAPLANTE: The reverence for Donald was so intense that they saw only the money and the success. And they didn't see anything else.

MCEVERS: Two hundred and fifteen thousand people tried out to be on "The Apprentice" that first season. And at the time, LaPlante and the other people who worked on the show were stoked. Like, oh, if these people trying out for the show like Trump so much, maybe the show's going to be a huge hit and we're all going to make a lot of money.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE O'JAYS SONG, "FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY")

MCEVERS: Because those contestants who so desperately wanted to be like Donald Trump, LaPlante says they were stand-ins for all of us. If they wanted to be him, that means tons of people watching maybe wanted to be him, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY")

THE O'JAYS: (Singing) Money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money...

MCEVERS: So the opening of every episode of "The Apprentice" starts with this song and this montage. There are all these fisheye lens shots of New York City, a close-up on a Mercedes hood ornament, a stack of $100 bills going through a bill counter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY")

THE O'JAYS: (Singing) Dollar bills, y'all. Come on now.

MCEVERS: And then there's the contestants. There's, like, a headshot of each one while their name goes by and what looks like the stock ticker in Times Square. Most of them are young, single, good-looking. There's fast-talking Heidi, quirky and obsessive Sam, Troy and Bowie, the country boys, Kwame and Omarosa, both African-Americans. He's a Harvard MBA. She's a former staffer in the Clinton administration who says she grew up in the projects and has the scars to prove it. And here's how the show worked. The contestants were grouped into two teams. At first it was the men versus the women. And they were given tasks like go sell lemonade on Wall Street.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How are you doing? Ice cold lemonade for a dollar? No? All right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wall Street lemonade, a dollar a lemonade.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: How about a lemonade for a dollar, sir?

MCEVERS: Or go manage the Times Square Planet Hollywood for a day.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The biggest problem Planet Hollywood is having is you have 30 to 40,000 people walking across the street, but they're not coming in.

MCEVERS: While the teams were out doing their challenges, Donald Trump would do these segments on how to succeed in business. Some of them were taken right from "The Art Of The Deal."

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

TRUMP: I learned at a young age that you have to deal with the boss. It's very simple. Deal with...

It's always been easier for me to think big. It was always...

You've got to believe in what you're selling. If you don't believe...

I've always said that negotiation is not really learned. It's almost innate. It's in the genes. A negotiator...

MCEVERS: And then at the end of each challenge the contestants would all go into the boardroom - which, by the way, wasn't the real boardroom used by Trump's company. It was a set built by NBC in Trump Tower. The losing team would have to sit there and get grilled by Trump, and eventually one of them would get fired. The winning team would be announced, and so would their prize, stuff like fly to Boston on Donald Trump's jet to have dinner, sit at Donald Trump's father's table at the 21 Club in Manhattan.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: This is where Donald Trump ate when he was little.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: How many deals have been made at this table?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: It is a dream, it is a fantasy of mine to live like this.

MCEVERS: Or go see Donald Trump's apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: This is, like, rich. Like, really, really rich.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: Look at this. Like, look at - you guys, come here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: When we went up to Donald's apartment, words can't describe how beautiful it was. Everything you saw was breathtaking. And we got to meet his girlfriend, Melania, who is amazing as well.

Hi.

MELANIA TRUMP: Hi, I'm Melania.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #11: Pleasure to meet you.

TRUMP: Nice to meet you. How are you?

MCEVERS: Like, the ultimate prize was to get as close to Trump as possible or to just live his life, if even a little. Still, not all the contestants were so fawning. When Heidi Bressler auditioned for the show she treated it like it was a joke.

HEIDI BRESSLER: I was in a jean skirt and flip-flops and a tank top and everyone was in suits. And I almost left because the line was so long and I was going to miss my manicure.

MCEVERS: At the tryouts, Heidi gets in a fight with a guy during a roundtable. That helps her advance to the next round. And she eventually makes her way to Mark Burnett, the creator of the show.

BRESSLER: I didn't - I wasn't scared of Mark Burnett. And I think, yeah, he - oh, I know. He said, oh, your bag is fake. I'm like, I don't carry fake handbags. And I'm like - and basically I told him to F off. And he's like, would you tell Trump to F off? And I'm like, absolutely. If he called my handbag fake I would tell him to F off. And I knew, like, from there I'm going to get it.

MCEVERS: Heidi did get on the show. And then that day, the women got to see Trump's apartment as part of their reward for winning a challenge. Heidi was not super impressed.

BRESSLER: When we first walked into his apartment, I was like (gasping).

MCEVERS: So you were horrified (laughter)?

BRESSLER: Horrified - horrified when I saw his apartment because I walked in - I'm like, it's gold.

MCEVERS: But the producers did not want people to see that she was horrified.

BRESSLER: They were not happy with my reaction. He had a gold toilet - a gold toilet. I'm like, who does that?

MCEVERS: So the producers, of course, cut Heidi's reaction out. And they told her, you have to pretend like you love it, so the millions of people watching will love it, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: One contestant who did love it after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: All right, we are back with EMBEDDED. So on "The Apprentice," most of the people we saw on the screen were people just like us. And their whole thing was they wanted to be like - or at least be near Donald Trump because what American doesn't want to get really rich, right? We talked to a handful of contestants from the first season about this. And the one who really helped me understand how this whole aspirational thing could eventually lead to the White House was Troy McClain.

TROY MCCLAIN: So I was born in Alaska. I was raised in Montana. My mom was a bouncer of a bar and a truck driver. My kid sister is profoundly deaf and developmentally delayed.

MCEVERS: Troy McClain and his adopted sister were raised by a single mom, and they moved around a lot. Troy's mom would tell him they were between success cycles when things were going bad. Every time they'd move, she'd say they were upgrading. When Troy was in high school, they ended up in Spokane, Wash. Troy says he was fighting a lot, getting in a lot of trouble and was pretty convinced he wouldn't graduate. And then his mom bought him "The Art Of The Deal" by Donald Trump.

MCCLAIN: Not only did I read the book. I ended up doing a debate. And you do what's called expose. In expose, I did a narrative on the book. And I had this little red phone as my prop. And I picked it up. I acted like I was Donald Trump. And I just remember that his day started at like 6 a.m., and it started with a phone call. So my prop was I had this phone call. I'll tell the crowd, like, here's the Donald Trump "Art Of The Deal." Here's the narrative on the book - blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

MCEVERS: Troy became known for his Donald Trump routine. His senior quote in the yearbook was, Trump, I'm coming. Like, one day I'll be as successful as you. At one point, Troy even ripped the page out and mailed it to Donald Trump. Fourteen years later, Troy gets married. He's sitting at home one day, and this ad comes on TV.

MCCLAIN: My wife starts screaming. And I thought, oh, my gosh, like what's going on? Did somebody break in the house? What's happening? She's like look, look, look, look, look, look. And she's like, it's a job interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: A job interview to be a contestant on "The Apprentice." At the time, Troy was making money flipping houses, and his wife talks him into making an audition tape.

MCCLAIN: I'm telling my wife - I go, honey, there's people that are going to put together professional videos. And there's no way - I don't have enough time. So we put together a video. I put a little camera - a very old-fashioned camera - on the end of an ironing board. And I say, hey, this - I'm Troy McClain. My bride's asked me to do this. Let's look at the house that I just most recently sold.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCLAIN: I develop real estate property just like you, Donald.

I believe I bought it for $106,000. Forty-seven days later, I sold it for...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCLAIN: I turned it into $217,000 in less than 48 days.

And I showed the cashier's check in the video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCLAIN: NBC and Donald Trump, stop wasting money, and get me to be your apprentice.

MCEVERS: Troy gets on the show. And at one point early on, we see him out hustling, trying to get people to come into the Planet Hollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

MCCLAIN: I've got $5 gift certificates off for any dinner or any drink, and I've also got T-shirts for sale. Does anybody want to buy...

MCEVERS: And here he is giving a pep talk to another contestant, Sam, who's kind of freaking out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

MCCLAIN: Sam the man, sit up for a second. Close your eyes.

MCEVERS: Troy gives him a cowboy hat.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

MCCLAIN: Now, Sammy's (ph) the country kid. Think about doing a little fishing. You think about just kicking back. You've got the mountains behind you. Everything's fine, relax. Be the country kid. Be the hat.

SAM SOLOVEY: Thank you, Troy.

MCCLAIN: You're welcome, buddy.

MCEVERS: And you can hear how the show played up the whole country-kid-comes-to-the-city thing. Here's a scene where Troy and some others meet Russell Simmons from Def Jam records to pitch a celebrity auction. Simmons is surprised when he first hears Troy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

RUSSELL SIMMONS: Where are you from?

(LAUGHTER)

MCCLAIN: I'm from Idaho. But originally, I'm from Montana.

SIMMONS: You're not self-conscious about your accent, are you?

MCCLAIN: You could make fun of me with my accent (laughter). That's all right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Russell basically looked at Troy as if he was from Mars. You know, Russell is...

MCEVERS: This is something that really bothers Troy, and he says it has a lot to do with how he feels about Donald Trump. Troy says he feels like people disrespect him because of who he is, where he's from, how he talks.

MCCLAIN: We always felt like the social elite, even though we didn't know who they were - the social elite was holding us down. The social elite knew something that we didn't know. They had the fast track to success. They had the inside track.

MCEVERS: Troy says he does not see Donald Trump as the social elite. He sees him as an outsider who made it in. This is another reason why Troy really liked Donald Trump. Not only did he represent success, but he represented someone who didn't let people talk down to him.

MCCLAIN: He had the arrogance and the cockiness, and then he also had that stick-it-to-the-man attitude. Even though he had the nice jacket, the overcoat, the suits, he still had this - like, man that's guy's gritty. That guy is just - he's just grit. And he'd maybe try to dress it up and was from New York, but we just knew. We're just like, oh, that guy's cool just because of that.

MCEVERS: That he's, like, the anti-elite elite somehow.

MCCLAIN: Yeah, he's a hustler, and I love him. I love that he's a hustler. He hustled himself a TV show. He hustled himself a gig. And I had - I continue to go, whoa, that guy's genius.

MCEVERS: All of this stuff - that people don't respect the working class but Trump does because he's an anti-elite straight talker - is stuff we heard a lot during the election and after. But Troy was thinking this way for a long time. And if Troy was thinking this way, so were lots of people who were watching him on "The Apprentice."

MCCLAIN: I bet those 20 million Americans a week that were watching it certainly weren't - the majority of them weren't the Ivy Leagues, or the Harvard grads or the politicians. They were the ones that were looking to see if somebody like myself can make it.

MCEVERS: Twenty-eight million people watched the finale of "The Apprentice" season one. That puts it in the top 20 for all series finales after "M*A*S*H*," "Friends," "Seinfeld" and "Happy Days." And the next year after that first season of "The Apprentice," Donald Trump had the highest Gallup poll approval ratings ever - a lot higher than they are now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Troy did not become Donald Trump's apprentice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

MCCLAIN: I think it comes down to instinct and guts. And you can't teach instinct.

TRUMP: Do you think you have more instinct than Kwame?

MCCLAIN: Yes, I do.

TRUMP: Why?

MCEVERS: This is his moment in the boardroom. Trump's trying to decide between Troy and Kwame Jackson, who has an MBA from Harvard.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

MCCLAIN: I don't have the institutionalized education. But education comes from other places other than college.

TRUMP: No education's not a bad thing. This is a tough choice. Actually, this is the toughest choice I've had to make. I have to say, you're fired.

MCEVERS: Troy to said Trump never said the actual words, you're fired to him in that moment on the set. Those were edited in later. Troy stayed friends with Trump. After the show was over, Trump and Melania and Troy and his wife all had dinner at a restaurant in the Taj Mahal Casino. Later, Trump wrote in his book "Think Like A Billionaire," that, quote, "guys like Troy are what make America great." And Troy voted for Trump for president and still supports him even though he doesn't agree with everything he does, like the way he talked about a disabled reporter or how harsh he is on Twitter sometimes.

MCCLAIN: We're just going to ride in my truck.

MCEVERS: OK.

Now Troy runs a consulting business in Boise, Idaho.

MCCLAIN: It's a country truck. That's for sure. So we're walking my truck. We're going to go get a cup of coffee.

MCEVERS: It's kind of a fancy track, actually.

MCCLAIN: Well, this is a modified...

MCEVERS: Uh-huh.

MCCLAIN: This is a country truck that's been modified thanks to the...

MCEVERS: He takes me to his favorite drive-up coffee place, The Human Bean, and shows me his gun.

MCCLAIN: I'm a concealed carry guy so, you know, it's a pride of ownership thing.

MCEVERS: What kind - what is that...

MCCLAIN: So that's a .380 auto that we carry. But in that - here in our region and in our state, I feel more comfortable when somebody conceal carries. If I go and meet with people in New York and other areas, it's like an offensive thing.

MCEVERS: But Troy doesn't care so much about what people think anymore. He still wears cowboy boots, but now they are really nice cowboy boots. And he'll tell you he's upgraded from a Seiko to a Rolex.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So yeah, the contestants were a way for all of us to get closer to Donald Trump. And the producers were the way to shape who Donald Trump appeared to be. One of the main producers on "The Apprentice" was this guy named Bill Pruitt. At first, he says he loved working on the show.

BILL PRUITT: My time on "The Apprentice" was a career high creatively. We didn't have to worry about the budget. It was huge - yuge as Trump would say. And that's because NBC ponied up for what they wanted and they got, and that's a successful franchise.

MCEVERS: Producers has got to stay in townhouses and take town cars everywhere. They had dinners at Tavern On The Green. Pruitt says what made the show so great was the fact that Trump had a lot of raw talent. Like, there was all this talk about how a contestant would be told they're being let go. At first, he was supposed to say either hit the street like, I'm letting you go or hit the suite like, go back upstairs to your apartment. You can stay. And Pruitt says Trump was like, why don't we just keep it simple?

PRUITT: I'll just say, you're fired. I'll just say, you're fired. And we're, like, OK, OK. Good. Yeah. All right. Fine. Yes. Why not? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. We kind of looked around. Yeah. OK. Yeah. Sounds kind of simple, but OK. Yeah. Sure. Whatever. And then the first guy David got canned, and it worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

TRUMP: And David I'm going to ask you to take the down elevator. You're fired.

PRUITT: And then the second firing was this kid Jason.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

JASON CURIS: Mr. Trump, I'm sorry to interrupt you.

PRUITT: And Trump threw in what we called the cobra where he threw out his fingers, thrust them at the guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

TRUMP: Jason, Jason, this is a tough one. You're fired.

PRUITT: And I remember in the control room, watching, it was visceral. It was like he shot him. Everyone in the room went, oh, whoa, wow, whoa. So the cobra became sort of a trademark move that he did beyond you're fired.

MCEVERS: The boardroom was, of course, where most of the drama happened on this show. And it's where we saw the most of Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

MCEVERS: The room is always super dark. Bill Pruitt says they wanted it to be like "The Godfather." And Trump makes sure only one side of his face is lit at all times.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

TRUMP: Robin, bring them in, please.

MCEVERS: Then he calls through his speakerphone to tell his receptionist to send contestants in.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

ROBIN HIMMLER: OK. You can go in and see Mr. Trump.

MCEVERS: And what's so fascinating about watching the show now is that you see so many hints about Donald Trump's personality - things that are super important now, like how he believes you should never back down in a negotiation or that loyalty...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

TRUMP: What do you think? Was she honest or was she disloyal?

MCEVERS: ...Is more important than just about anything else.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

TRUMP: Your disloyalty has been just terrible. And you sort of understood that...

TAMMY: Throughout or just this one particular time?

TRUMP: Let's say, it doesn't matter.

TAMMY: OK.

TRUMP: I mean, it is obnoxious in this particular case. Tammy, you're fired.

MCEVERS: Bill Pruitt says it was really fun shooting and seeing the scenes until Trump started saying really offensive things on the set. And this is where I need to tell you a Bill Pruitt story. Last October just before the election, we all remember when the "Access Hollywood" tape of Trump talking to Billy Bush emerged, the one where he talked about grabbing women by the you know. Right after that story broke last year, Bill Pruitt's down in Texas. He's working for someone else by then, these TV series about the border. And he's in an army navy surplus store. And a friend who had worked with him on "The Apprentice" says, why didn't you say something? So he tweets.

PRUITT: I tweeted, as a producer of seasons one and two of "The Apprentice," hashtag, when it comes to, hashtag, Trump tapes, I assure you there are far worse. And then I hashtag-ed just the beginning, and I misspelled beginning. And what I meant by that was that we recorded constantly. We went into the boardroom to set up discussions about how and who should get fired without talking and saying directly who should get fired. So there was a big long exchange, all of which was recorded. And out of those exchanges came from really unfathomably despicable words said by this guy who is a TV star. I heard it. I watched it. And those things are somewhere in some warehouse.

MCEVERS: Those things meaning all the outtakes from "The Apprentice." Right after he tweets this, the tweet blows up. Bill gets bombarded with requests from reporters. And he wants to be really clear. He does not have the tapes. And nobody has said publicly if such tapes even exist. Last October, Mark Burnett released a statement that said he, quote, does not have the ability or the right to release footage or other material from "The Apprentice." He went to say various contractual and legal requirements restrict the ability to release such material. Many people suspect the tapes won't ever be released because Donald Trump is still an executive producer on "The Apprentice."

This is the first time that Bill Pruitt has talked publicly about what Trump says in those recordings. So sitting on his couch in Malibu, I ask him what's on the tapes. He can only say so much. He did sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Was it just about women - mostly about women?

PRUITT: No - very much a racist issue.

MCEVERS: It was about race?

PRUITT: Yeah.

MCEVERS: About African-Americans, Jewish people, all of the above?

PRUITT: Yep.

MCEVERS: And was it just him - I mean, were other - you know, was it sort of a Billy Bush situation where it was like. yeah, man. I know what you mean, like, other people talking that way to you? Like, was it a culture of the place?

PRUITT: No. No, I think when you heard these things, there's the audible gasp. You know, that is quickly followed by a cough, kind of like (gasping), you know, then (coughing). Yes, and anyway, you know, and then you just sort of carry on.

MCEVERS: Is there ever a time when you think I wish I would have told him not to say things like that?

PRUITT: That's a really good question. It was not my place. I was one of four producers on an episode. And I was on hand to supply information if it was asked of me. So to be, hey, TV star, you know, reason we're all here, shut your (expletive) mouth, and don't ever, ever repeat what you just said to anyone ever. Of course, you know, you think that. You go back to your hotel room or your apartment that they put you up in. And, you know, you do some soul-searching.

MCEVERS: But he does not say anything. He keeps making the show and cashing the checks.

We should say we reached out to the White House, and a spokesman called Bill's story, quote, "the same recycled and false attacks." If Bill Pruitt struggled with what he says was happening at the time, he really struggles with it now. Because it's not just that they ignored the offensive comments, the producers, editors cut out other bad stuff, too, and they played up the good stuff. And all that helped create a Donald Trump who wasn't the real Donald Trump. Like this idea - remember that thing from the very first episode where he said he'd had some trouble in business but overcame it?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

TRUMP: But I fought back and I won - big league. And I worked at all. Now my company is bigger than it ever was. It's stronger than it ever was.

MCEVERS: That wasn't entirely true. Donald Trump's businesses were still in trouble at the time of the first season of "The Apprentice." But on the show, it looked like everything was going great.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

TRUMP: I have a home in Bedford. Bedford is an area where the richest people live.

Best golf course in New York state, Trump National Golf Club.

Largest windows in the city. Highest ceilings. Everything is luxury. Best of everything.

Now, the Trump Taj Mahal is the No. 1 hotel in Atlantic City.

MCEVERS: Think about it. Donald Trump was getting paid a salary by NBC to have this huge platform where he could promote his businesses, even when some of those businesses weren't actually doing very well.

PRUITT: The brands, you know, like Taj Mahal - it was enormously difficult to promote that because you walk in there, and you see, you know, neons falling. It was the Ta Mahal or something. You know, there was no J because the neons were out (laughter). They just hadn't had the opportunity to replace it yet. It wasn't a priority because the carpets were already rotting, and, you know, it just stank to high heaven. So...

MCEVERS: But you mostly edit that stuff, too.

PRUITT: Well, also, the jet was, you know, questionable whether it would fly that week. The helicopter was up for sale, I believe. We didn't know if we were going to have it next week.

MCEVERS: Huh. But that's not the way you made it look...

PRUITT: Not at all.

MCEVERS: ...In that opening sequence.

PRUITT: Exactly.

MCEVERS: Oh, my gosh. You created a fiction, a fictional billionaire.

PRUITT: Well, he had been a billionaire. I mean, everything we said about him was truthful. It's what we didn't say about him. Do you know what I mean? It was a convenient vacation of the truth.

MCEVERS: At the time of "The Apprentice," Donald Trump's companies had already been through four bankruptcies. And there were two more to come, including the Taj Mahal. But Bill Pruitt and the show made him out to be this wildly successful guy having the time of his life, a guy who millions of people started looking up to and even wanted to be like.

This is the thing that Bill Pruitt feels the most guilty about now. In helping make "The Apprentice," Bill says he was a good con artist. He has the Emmys to prove it from other reality shows. And on "The Apprentice," his con helped take Donald Trump all the way to the White House.

PRUITT: We told a story. We went with beginnings and middles and ends and villains and protagonists. And we went about the business of putting music and picture and sound together, the things that we thought we wanted to get up in the morning and do with our lives. And now, all of a sudden, we're here. A cultural icon emerged because we weren't necessarily truthful about our portrayal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Bill Pruitt only worked on "The Apprentice" for two seasons. But he kept working in reality TV. He put two kids through college that way. He rents a nice, little spot in Malibu with an amazing view of the ocean. And now he's done with reality TV. He works on documentaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: This episode was reported by me, Chris Benderev and Parker Yesko. It was produced by Chris Benderev and edited by Neal Carruth, Jane Marie and Tom Dreisbach. Thanks to the other contestants we talked to, namely Sam Solovey and Kwame Jackson. We also had editing from Neva Grant, Jinae West, Jonathan Hirsch, Rebecca Hersher, Brent Baughman, Arnie Seipel and Mark Memmott. Fact checking was by Greta Pittenger. Our lawyer is Micah Ratner. Social media help from Alexander McCall. Technical direction from Patrick Boyd (ph). Our theme song is by Colin Wambsgans. Other original music is by Jonathan Hirsch and Ramtin Arablouei. EMBEDDED is executive produced by me, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann. We'll have more next week when we tell you how Donald Trump built a golf course.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We're going to build something that I believe will be, in the end, one of the great courses anywhere in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: Team Kenny G. puts it away again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: He brought his saxophone.

MCEVERS: No, he didn't.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Yes, he did.

KENNY G: (Playing saxophone).

MCEVERS: And all the people he crossed along the way.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Mr. Trump comes in to her house. And he looks around the place, and he looks at her. And he says, this looks like [expletive].

MCEVERS: You can hear more NPR on your local public radio station on another show I host called All Things Considered. And we are on Twitter at @NPREmbedded. Holler. I'm Kelly McEvers. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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