The last big remaining mystery of the 2016 presidential campaign was addressed in of all places the cold open for the final episode of Saturday Night Live before the election.
“I could really go for another Donald Trump audio leak right about now,” Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton character says in a fake interview with CNN. The fictional Clinton then directly addresses The Apprentice creator and Trump collaborator Mark Burnett: “Mark my baby, I know you’re sitting on some pretty racist tapes of Donald on The Apprentice, so, Mark, as they say on Wheel of Fortune: ‘Give me an N.’ ”
This was a reference to the very real rumor that Trump can be heard saying the N-word in unaired footage from The Apprentice. The rumor was floated not long after the leak of the Access Hollywood tape, and it seemed then like only a matter of time before someone released an Apprentice tape as well. But no leak ever came. What had happened? Was it simply that no video of the kind existed in the first place? Or were there no good Samaritans willing to step forward and assume the burden and potential legal liability of giving up the goods? Or perhaps, the most damaging material was merely in the hands of a Trump supporter?
For the past few weeks, I’ve been making phone calls, sending emails, driving around every corner of Los Angeles, and traveling across state lines in an effort to answer those questions. I’ve attempted to reach dozens of former Apprentice staffers and have communicated with about 15 of them in mainly off-the-record conversations. What I’ve learned is a few minorly salacious, previously unreported anecdotes from a shoot at the Playboy Mansion—where among other things Trump supposedly averred that he wanted to “drill” various women on set—but no printable evidence of a majorly explosive tape. I’ve also found that if a more scandalous tape does indeed exist, it is unlikely ever to see the light of day.
Trump was host of The Apprentice and later The Celebrity Apprentice for 14 seasons. The tapes with all those hours of archival footage have been locked away by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which owns Burnett’s production company and its archive, and by Burnett himself. They claim there are legal reasons for keeping the footage hidden from public consumption, but lawyers have challenged that idea.
Bill Pruitt, a producer from the first two seasons of The Apprentice caused a minor stir last month when he said publicly, that, yes, he knew that the really bad Apprentice tapes do exist. In a tweet sent shortly after the release of the Access Hollywood tapes, Pruitt said this: “As a producer on seasons 1 & 2 of #theapprentice I assure you: when it comes to the #trumptapes there are far worse. #justthebegininng.”
When I reached Pruitt by phone a few weeks ago, he insisted that the “worse than Access Hollywood” Apprentice tape is real.
“I certainly stand by what I wrote,” he told me. “I know there to be much, much worse comments made by Donald Trump during his years working on The Apprentice, the details of which I can’t go into simply because they’re under lock and key on tape and I can’t be validated until those tapes come out.”
Pruitt viewed himself as sort of a journalistic spirit guide to all those who might be looking for the tapes. He even compared himself to the central source in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting: “A friend, called up, very coincidentally, and said, ‘You’re like Tweet Throat.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You’re like Mark Felt telling all the Woodsteins out there to follow the money to bring down Nixon.’ ”
Soon after he sent the tweet—which has been retweeted and liked more than 75,000 times—the New York Times called him to ask about it, his voicemail filled up, and he started receiving threats against his life.
“I’m getting death threats from total strangers, who I think are paranoid and nervous—and rightly so—of what they think I’m holding, as if I’ve got this big bomb that could blow up in everybody’s face,” Pruitt said. “That’s indicative of the climate we live in, too, and what Trump’s agenda has been.”
Word has trickled out in various media reports of some of the material that might be on all those hours of footage. An early-season editor named Jim Ruxin told me that part of the job was saving Trump from himself, which resulted in one of the more interesting on-the-record anecdotes I heard. In one episode in the first season that I watched to get a better understanding of the show, I noticed how in the boardroom scenes where Trump is considering his decisions about whom to fire, there were moments where the camera would cut away from his face as he was sharing a thought, and the voice would seem to become disjointed. Ruxin explained that this was called a “Frankenbite” in reality TV parlance and was not uncommon in the industry: The disjointed-sounding Trump dialogue was edited in after the fact to replace whatever he’d said in the moment. Ruxin remembered a particular Frankenbite from the first season. Trump was setting up to fire a contestant named Troy McClain, who had not been to college. According to Ruxin, Trump said something along the lines of, You’ve never been to college and I have fancy sophisticated dinner parties all the time. And I can’t have you there. Basically, Trump was insulting in the crudest possible fashion those who lacked college degrees—a group that 12 years later would end up being his largest base of voters.
“The line that was invented [to replace that] was, ‘You’re a loose cannon and I can’t have that in my organization,’ ” Ruxin told me. I looked up the footage, and sure enough, the edit played out pretty much as Ruxin remembered it. “That’s typical of what went on to protect Trump from himself in the boardroom,” Ruxin said.
Another early-season editor, Jonathon Braun, told me about his fellow editors feeling a “communal guilt about making him seem something that he’s not” for the way they portrayed Trump in the series as an epitome of American success.
At one point, I went to the home of a sound guy who BuzzFeed reported had said that Trump had repeatedly called him a “fucking monkey.” What BuzzFeed didn’t report—and what feels relevant given Trump’s reported abuse of deaf actress Marlee Matlin and a campaign incident in which he appeared to mimic and mock a disabled reporter—is that the “fucking monkey” sound guy was hearing impaired. (He declined to talk to me on the record.)
I also heard some unsurprising anecdotes about how Trump’s “locker-room talk” spilled over into the show. “The thing that stood out to me is that he would refer to a woman as an ‘it’ or a ‘that’ and it just seemed awfully demeaning to me,” one former producer who wanted to remain anonymous told me. That included talking about how he wanted to “drill that,” in reference to women on set, and at one point during a scene shot at the Playboy Mansion, he said of a woman “it looks good in a bikini,” according to this producer.
The former producer also told me that during the Playboy Mansion shoot, Trump—who had recently married Melania—was recorded asking to be set up with Playmates.
“I remember him talking, I’m pretty sure it was to Hef himself, about some of the women that were around and especially Playmates and talking about how he would like to be hooked up with them,” the former producer told me. “Somebody said to him, ‘You’re married, you just recently got married.’ ”
The former producer continued: “He was just so cavalier. … He didn’t give a shit. He just didn’t care if anybody heard it or not.”
A few days after I was told about the Playboy Mansion shoot, the Wall Street Journal reported that the National Enquirer paid to suppress a story about Trump having an affair with a Playmate.
Again, these stories were fairly innocuous; Trump might even view them as image-bolstering. Why wouldn’t the former producer go on the record? He said he was concerned potential employers might not be eager to hire someone so gabby about a former workplace. I heard some variation of this a lot: People weren’t afraid of lawsuits; they were afraid that talking on the record might damage or torpedo future career possibilities with other productions.
“I think people don’t want to risk anything, because that’s our livelihood, that’s how we make our money,” said another former employee who didn’t want to speak on the record, even though he said he had nothing Earth-shattering to share.
“People are afraid that they might not get hired, and you never know why you might not get hired,” Braun said. “You just never know. The smart move is to just not say anything and to just go along, play along.”
One name came up on multiple occasions as someone who might have information about the big thing: Katherine Walker, a first-season producer who spoke with the Associated Press for its big Apprentice story. But multiple messages to Walker via phone, email, and social media accounts went unreturned. I knocked on three separate apartment doors that had been listed for Walker and was told in two instances that she no longer lived at those addresses, and on a third that she didn’t live there.
On Facebook, Walker has written that she was unhappy with the AP’s story, so perhaps that was why she was reluctant to talk. In a personal blog post published last week, Walker talked about the work that went into crafting the Trump image and spoke cryptically about what that might mean for the final days of the election:
… ultimately, the beauty (and incredibly risky endeavor) of the show was that Trump could fire who he wanted. He listened to varying points of view but we had to be prepared for anything and stay one step ahead of the psychology of the individual to tell some kind of cohesive story that had three required elements: it must be fair and authentic; it must make sense; and it must [decipher] a business thesis principle that would be proven by the final decision on who deserved to go the most. What does this mean over the course of the next 134 hours and 23 minutes until the day of reckoning? It means be prepared for the worst, work for the best.
A couple of different high-level former producers gave some version of the same spiel for why they weren’t talking: The die had been cast. Nothing they said at this point was going to change the outcome of the election, so what was the point? And in any case they didn’t have anything that exciting to share—nothing along the lines of the Access Hollywood tape.
As one high-level person, who didn’t want to talk to me because he said it wouldn’t make a difference anyway, put it: “Everyone’s looking for that golden ticket.” But, he said, it’s just not going to happen.