In the boardroom on The Apprentice, the stakes seemed high. A quick decision from Donald Trump could mean the difference between winning, losing and embarrassment on network TV.
But in the cabinet room at the White House, people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake.
In recent weeks, as President Trump led televised listening sessions about school safety and immigration in the cabinet room, former Apprentice producer Bill Pruitt watched with a feeling of familiarity or, as he puts it, “a minor form of PTSD.”
On Trump’s reality competition show, The Apprentice, each episode ended in the boardroom (actually a set with two-way mirrors to allow multiple camera angles and not the real room used by Trump in his business), where Trump questioned contestants about their performance on the week’s tasks, offered his own analysis of contestants flaws and ultimately decided their fate with his signature “You’re fired!”
Pruitt was a producer on the first two seasons of the show, watching the boardroom drama unfold on a bank of monitors in a neighboring control room.
“You never knew what was going to happen exactly,” Pruitt says. “It was like the greatest, grandest improvised theater with all the stakes woven into it.”
On Thursday, President Trump is set to hold a cabinet meeting and also a listening session on school safety with videogame makers. It’s not clear whether they will be televised, but if recent history is a guide, there could be plot twists aka policy pronouncements from the president that require his staff to quickly clarify or walk back what he says entirely.
In January when president Trump sat down with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to talk about immigration, the fates of more than 700,000 immigrants known as dreamers were on the line.
“I’ll take the heat, I don’t care,” Trump said sitting at the center of a large wooden table. “I don’t care — I’ll take all the heat you want to give me, and I’ll take the heat off both the Democrats and the Republicans. My whole life has been heat.”
Normally cameras would only have been in the room for a few minutes, but they were allowed to stay for the entire meeting — as Republicans and Democrats offered different suggestions and Trump appeared to agree with both. Since then, there have been no breakthroughs on immigration legislation.
At the time, pundits praised the president’s transparency — the ability of the public to watch a policy discussion unfold in real time. And President Trump noticed. The next day, he talked about it in a cabinet meeting.
“But we brought them together in this room, and it was a tremendous meeting,” Trump boasted. “Actually, it was reported as incredibly good. And my performance — you know, some of them called it a performance — I consider it work. But it got great reviews.”
Then last month, Trump did it again. This time the topic in the cabinet room was gun control and school safety. And just like when Pruitt was in The Apprentice’s control room, those in the room and watching on TV had no idea where the conversation was going. Trump quizzed Pennsylvania’s Republican Sen. Pat Toomey about why his background check legislation didn’t raise the age for rifle purchases to 21.
When Toomey said it hadn’t been included, President Trump shot back: “You know why? Cause you’re afraid of the NRA.”
At another point, Vice President Pence raised the idea of obtaining court orders to temporarily take weapons from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. Trump went off script.
“Or Mike, take the firearms first and then go to court,” Trump said arguing due process could slow things down too much.
The president’s apparent willingness to bypass due process got people talking — though before long White House aides spread the word that Trump was really just trying to provoke an exchange of ideas. Or put another way: trying to make good television.
And this is where the familiarity comes in for former Apprentice producer Pruitt. He says right before the boardroom sessions, Trump would come into the control room to talk to the producers.
“He’d reach over to the craft service table and scoop up a fistfull of M&Ms and go, ‘Who should I fire?’,” Pruitt remembers.
Pruitt says the producers couldn’t tell Trump who to fire, but they tried to lay things out for him in a way that would fit with how the episode was shaping up, emphasizing which contestants had performed well in their tasks and who had screwed up.
“We needed a consistent story,” Pruitt says, a story with a beginning, middle and end. “We needed a surprise at the end. But not the kind of surprise that would involve somebody unrelated to the task, unrelated to the failure getting fired.”
But left to his own devices in the boardroom, Trump sometimes went in an entirely different direction.
“And I can imagine that just like the producers whose individual episodes were playing out in that board room, there’s some policy advisor sitting off in the wings way off camera who’s been prompting and prepping Mr. Trump to have a certain line of questioning, a certain line of dialogue go down in a certain way and it just goes off the rails,” Pruitt says.
The difference, though, was with The Apprentice, they could go back and edit the episode in a way that made it all make sense — give it a thru line. In real life, and in politics, there is no editing — and confusion can have political consequences.