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New ‘Apprentice’ book paints Trump as wounded, forgetful

ANNA MONEYMAKER/THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                After returning from his COVID-19 hospitalization, President Donald Trump removes his mask.
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ANNA MONEYMAKER/THE NEW YORK TIMES

After returning from his COVID-19 hospitalization, President Donald Trump removes his mask.

NEW YORK >> It was May 2021, and Donald Trump was wounded. Four months earlier, his supporters had ransacked the Capitol. He had departed Washington, disgraced, defeated and twice impeached. His party had abandoned him, however temporarily, and he had been kicked off his social media accounts. He holed up inside Trump Tower and stewed.

An entertainment journalist named Ramin Setoodeh came knocking. He told Trump he wanted to write a book, not about the unpleasantness of the previous four years, but about that prelapsarian period before Trump entered politics. Then, he was merely the star of “The Apprentice,” a reality TV show that aired on NBC beginning in 2004 and “changed television,” as Setoodeh put it to the former president.

Trump was sold. He granted the reporter several long, recorded interviews. “He was at his lowest then,” Setoodeh, 42, said over lunch in Manhattan’s West Village on Friday. “I think talking about ‘The Apprentice’ allowed him to feel comfort.”

Trump became so excited about the book that he offered to promote it at his rallies, saying that the merchants who follow his traveling roadshow would help peddle it. “You’ll sell 10,000 books at one rally,” he told Setoodeh. “Let’s see how this works out.”

Not well, as it turns out — at least for Trump. “Apprentice in Wonderland,” published Tuesday, depicts its subject as a lonely and sometimes dotty man, longing for the days when he was still accepted by his fellow celebrities, even as he seems to crave political power.

One minute, he’s bragging that Joan Rivers voted for him in 2016 (she died in 2014); the next, he’s excusing himself to go deal with “the whole thing with the Afghanistan,” as he told Setoodeh, who happened to be interviewing him the week President Joe Biden was pulling U.S. troops out of the country. It was unclear what Trump meant.

Setoodeh spent three afternoons at Trump Tower and one at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s estate in Florida, and interviewed the former president twice on the phone. His final visit was in November. He came away believing Trump, now 78, was declining, he said.

“Trump was certainly much sharper when he was in his 60s hosting ‘The Apprentice,’ and he did struggle with short-term memory,” Setoodeh said. When the author showed up for his second interview, the former president did not appear to remember giving a first, Setoodeh said, although just under three months had passed.

“President Trump was aware of who this individual was throughout the interview process, but this ‘writer’ is a nobody and insignificant, so of course he never made an impression,” said Trump’s spokesperson Steven Cheung, adding that Setoodeh “has now chosen to allow Trump Derangement Syndrome to rot his brain like so many other losers whose entire existence revolves around President Trump.”

On social media, the campaign has gone on the attack, threatening to release audio clips of Setoodeh’s interviews with Trump in which the journalist talked favorably about his legacy as an entertainer.

Setoodeh said Trump was much happier discussing “The Apprentice” than anything having to do with his presidency. “He compares himself to Clint Eastwood and Marlon Brando, and sees himself in a lot of ways as an actor and a famous person,” said Setoodeh. The 45th president gossiped about Khloe Kardashian (“I never got along great with Khloe. Khloe was arrested for drunk driving, did you know that?”); the disgraced former head of CBS, Leslie Moonves (“Now he sits at the Bel-Air club and nobody cares”); Bette Midler (“I had her in my apartment and now she says the nastiest things”); Dennis Rodman (“A pretty cool cat in many ways … Kim Jong Un really liked him, legit”); and Taylor Swift (“I find her very beautiful. I think she’s liberal. Probably doesn’t like Trump”).

“I was really surprised by how much he was still fixated on celebrity culture and how much celebrity still means to him,” Setoodeh said. He noted that Trump became “most excited” talking about his theory that famous people living in Beverly Hills, California, vote for him but won’t admit it.

“What is the advantage of having secret voters in Beverly Hills?,” Setoodeh wondered. “Wouldn’t you want secret voters in Ohio or Pennsylvania? But he wants secret voters in Beverly Hills because he associates that with show business, and that’s the most important thing for him.”

One person Trump refused to gossip about was Mark Burnett, the producer of “The Apprentice,” even though Burnett condemned Trump’s candidacy for sowing “hatred, division and misogyny” in 2016.

“It’s interesting,” Setoodeh said, “because Trump, if someone says something publicly about him that opposes him, he holds grudges forever, and Mark did disavow Trump after the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape. But Trump credits Mark with ‘The Apprentice,’ and he loves ‘The Apprentice,’ and so he never said anything about Mark Burnett that was even vaguely negative.” (Burnett did not grant an interview for the book.)

Setoodeh’s interview with Trump at Mar-a-Lago last year happened to fall on the day that Trump’s sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, died. Setoodeh expected the interview to be canceled; instead, it was pushed back an hour. Trump reminisced that day about how even his sister, who had been a tough-minded federal judge, loved “The Apprentice.”

In Trump Tower, Setoodeh played for Trump a montage of scenes from the show, including the three times over the years that Trump “fired” Omarosa Manigault Newman, the show’s recurring villain. He would go on to hire her to work in the White House, but she made secret tapes and afterward publicly disavowed him as a racist, publishing a book about her time in his administration titled “Unhinged.”

About all of that, Trump sounded almost amused, telling Setoodeh: “I told people when we hired her, I said, ‘When we fire her, we’ll have nothing but trouble.’ But that’s OK. That’s the way life goes.”

Former first lady Melania Trump makes an appearance in the book when Trump reminisces about firing Rodman because he misspelled her name as “Milania” on a poster for her new skincare line during one of the show’s challenges. Melania Trump had spoken up in that episode to complain: “They spelled my name wrong, it’s all over the place, and nobody even noticed.”

Setoodeh said the former president was gleeful reliving the exchange, saying: “I mean, how good is that television? I can’t believe it.”

Talking about those simpler times, Trump slipped into a few moments of something approaching introspection, as when he accidentally admitted he “lost the election” (although he quickly reversed himself to say “when they said we lost”). At one point, he asked Setoodeh: “So, do you think I would have been president without ‘The Apprentice’? I say yes. But some people say no. Many smart people say no.”

Trump said that ultimately what he learned about show business from his years on the show was this: “It’s all about one thing: ratings. If you have ratings, you can be the meanest, most horrible human being in the world.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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