Trump Looks to Dodge Scrutiny on 'Apprentice' Role, Financial Empire

Trump Apprentice_Photofest - H 2016

Trump Apprentice_Photofest - H 2016

The president-elect will hold a Dec. 15 press conference to lay out plans to wall off the administration from his vast global business interests. But Trump's executive producer title on 'The Apprentice' may prove tricky for NBC.

President-elect Donald Trump is just days away from a promise to divulge exactly how he’ll wall off the administration from his vast global business empire once in the White House. And amid all the financial entanglements, there is one that sharply stands out in a portfolio of luxury high-rise towers and international golf courses.

Just weeks before Inauguration Day, Trump’s name will roll on the opening credits of The New Celebrity Apprentice as an executive producer. It is not known how much Trump stands to profit for the season, but the the financial stakes are high. The mogul claimed in a 2015 regulatory disclosure that he banked more than $213 million over 14 seasons as host.

The revelation that Trump will remain attached to the reality show, which is owned by MGM and licensed to NBC, ignited a critical firestorm about potential conflicts of interest. There are ethical concerns about how NBC will handle advertising for the commander in chief’s primetime program, and deep concern inside the halls of the news division's Rockefeller Center headquarters about the way forward. 

"This is a federally regulated broadcaster doing business with a sitting president,” notes Gabriel Kahn, a professor at USC's Annenberg school and a former longtime editor at The Wall Street Journal. "There is no way that this is OK, even if they didn’t have a news division.”

Trump has given no indication about how he’ll manage his business interests ahead of the Dec. 15 press conference. His first comments about The Apprentice came — not unexpectedly — via Twitter when he wrote Saturday he'd spend "zero time" on the show.

But, while the current season already has been shot and is nearly at the end of post-production, there’s still the question about future seasons during Trump's four-year term.

Sources inside NBC News and MSNBC insist that the network will continue to fill its mandate to cover the Trump administration aggressively and objectively, irrespective of Trump's interest in any program out of the entertainment division. The news division was made aware some time ago of Trump's credit on the upcoming iteration of the show, according to sources.

And while it might be an uncomfortable juxtaposition for NBC's news unit, sources there stress that it will have no effect on the tenor of coverage. In cases where stars from Celebrity Apprentice are appearing on NBC News programs such as the Today show, the connection with Trump would be clearly stated, said an NBC News source. 

There is also the matter of putting money — however indirectly — into the pocket of the president of the United States. Trump has maintained an executive producer credit on the reality series that made him famous, whether or not he was hosting, including on international versions and a 2005 iteration hosted by Martha Stewart. 

A spokesman for Trump said he still has a “big stake” in the show, and therefore will continue to have a role in overseeing it. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager who remains an adviser, echoed that in a CNN interview in which she said “presidents have a right to do things in their spare time.”

"He's a very transparent guy,” Conway told CNN. "Everyone can see what he's doing, and the fact is that he is conferring with all types of experts to tell him what is allowed to do and not do as the president of the United States. If this is one of the approved activities, then perhaps he will consider staying on."

But spending time on it and profiting from a show carried by a network that will be covering Trump's presidency are two different issues. Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the mainstream media. And at a Nov. 21 off-the-record meeting with the TV press at Trump Tower, he complained to NBC News president Deborah Turness that the network runs unflattering pictures of him, according to people who were in the room.

“It’s inappropriate and unethical and will now weigh on everything that NBC does, particularly for a president who has hectored news executives,” Kahn said. "If there’s a financial relationship between this show and the network, how about every time NBC News or MSNBC does a news broadcast that involves the president, they make a disclosure about that?”

There has certainly been evidence of past presidents, including Barack Obama, and other politicians receiving royalties from book projects. And, in the case of the entertainment business, President Reagan received residuals from his long cinema career. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is the new Apprentice host, noted that he continued to receive payments for movies he starred in prior to his election as California’s governor in 2003.

“It’s no different than when I was running for governor and I became governor,” said Schwarzenegger on Friday ahead of the show’s red-carpet premiere. Apprentice creator Mark Burnett was supposed to appear at the press conference but did not show up.

“My credit starring in Terminator still said Schwarzenegger and everything stayed the same and I continued getting the royalties and all that stuff,” he said. “So, I think that this is a contract that he had. I think that it was great that he was part of it.”

This is not the first Trump-related fire with which NBC has been forced to contend. Trump stepped down as host of The Apprentice when he announced his intention in June 2015 to seek the GOP presidential nomination. But his incendiary speech when he maligned Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and criminals and drug dealers (“and some, I assume, are good people”) put pressure on NBC to dump the Trump-owned beauty pageants the network had been running for several years. Less than two weeks after the speech, the network announced it was “ending its business relationship with Mr. Trump,” adding, “At NBC, respect and dignity for all people are cornerstones of our values."

It’s unclear what NBC is paying MGM to license The Celebrity Apprentice. But the show, like many unscripted series, has featured significant product integration. And NBC has lined up a raft of sponsors for the Schwarzenegger version including Trident, Welch’s, Carnival Cruise Lines, Tyra Banks’ makeup line Tyra Beauty, and Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company. (Alba also will appear on the show as an adviser.)

Many media buyers reached by THR shrugged off Trump’s continued involvement. "I don't know anyone clamoring to get into the 700th iteration of The Apprentice with or without Donald Trump, so I don't think it's high on anyone's radar,” noted one buyer.

Ameliorating concerns for sponsors is the show's charitable component. Roger Frizzell, a spokesman for Carnival cruise lines, told THR the company is "thrilled" to be a key sponsor of the new Celebrity Apprentice. He said the company is launching a website tied to "all the show's celebrity charities, and we hope the attention and focus will help drive additional viewing and support for each of these important organizations."

Analysts believe it’s unlikely that Trump’s name on the credits will have any discernable impact on tune-in for the new version that features Boy George, Jon Lovitz, WNBA star Lisa Leslie, former NFL running back Eric Dickerson and reality stars including Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, Carson Kressley and Kyle Richards.

"Some people will be watching it because of Trump and some people won’t watch it because of Trump, but nobody is going to change their mind about it because his name is on the credits. Trump is already baked into the program,” notes independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall.

"The only thing NBC can do if they don’t want that credit to appear on their airwaves is cancel The Apprentice. They’ve got no other leverage. NBC is in an embarrassing situation,” adds Tyndall. “But his name was on the show when they commissioned it. It’s just an embarrassment. It has no legal or ethical impact."

[Editor's note: After this story closed, Trump's spokesperson, Hope Hicks confirmed that the planned December press conference has been postponed. No new date was given.]