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Maybe in the White House Again, but Never in the Living Room

Donald Trump on 'The Apprentice;
Donald Trump in ‘The Apprentice’ (Image credit: NBC)

Stuart N. Brotman

Stuart N. Brotman (Image credit: Personal Photo)

With former President Donald Trump’s impeachment acquittal by the United States Senate, the door remains ajar for Trump to run again in 2024, as many of his supporters are encouraging him to do.

But there was a more conclusive prohibition that was meted out against him only days before — namely a resolution passed by the SAG-AFTRA National Board that preemptively denied any potential readmission application to the talent union by Trump. His SAG-AFTRA membership enabled Trump to host The Apprentice and its successor series, The Celebrity Apprentice, which provided massive public exposure for more than a decade that he leveraged for his successful 2016 White House bid.

As SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris noted, “Preventing Donald Trump from ever rejoining SAG-AFTRA is more than a symbolic step. It is a resounding statement that threatening or inciting harm against fellow members will not be tolerated. An attack against one is an attack against all.” The union’s membership includes virtually all the television journalists who covered Trump while he was in office, some of whom he called the “enemy of the people.”

Facing a disciplinary hearing, Trump already had voluntarily relinquished his membership on Feb. 4, a day before it was to be held. In his resignation letter, the former president expressed pride in his movie and television work, capped off by “one of the most successful shows in television history, The Apprentice.”

The Apprentice premiered on NBC during the 2003-2004 television season. It finished seventh among all primetime network programs then. The series dropped to number 11 in its second season, and continued an annual downward slide to number 113 by the 2010-11 television season, its last (the highest ratings ranking for The Celebrity Apprentice, which then ran with Trump as host until 2015, was No. 48).

One suspects that when the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library is finally opened, there may be a whole wing devoted to The Apprentice, since it looms so large in Trump’s own list of lifetime achievements. Trump earned more than $200 million from the series and its spinoff over 14 seasons, and millions more from enhanced product licensing, as his name and image became more profitable. It would not be surprising to see both a replica Oval Office and a reconstructed boardroom set with a wall of video screens in the background playing episode clips on an endless loop.

His TV career prospects have been permanently shattered by the SAG-AFTRA board resolution. Starting a much-rumored Trump TV network from scratch or acquiring an existing cable network such as One America News Network might not offer much regular screen time either, if it was covered by SAG-AFTRA rules; even if not, the ability to attract top on-air union talent would be severely limited by these rules. 

In short, Trump’s September 2005 declaration to host Billy Bush on his Access Hollywood bus hot-mic moment that went viral again and again — “When you’re a star, they let you do it” — no longer will ring true. The only people who still might agree with this boast are those senators who voted for acquittal at the impeachment trial, along with those who supported the outcome. Their hope is that whatever is left in its wake, the show must go on.

Stuart N. Brotman is the former president and CEO of The Museum of Television & Radio, now known as the Paley Center for Media.