After starring in fourteen seasons of “The Apprentice,” all executive-produced by Burnett, Trump appeared in the gilded atrium of Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue, to announce that he was running for President. Only someone “really rich,” Trump declared, could “take the brand of the United States and make it great again.” He also made racist remarks about Mexicans, prompting NBC, which had broadcast “The Apprentice,” to fire him. Burnett, however, did not sever his relationship with his star. He and Trump had been equal partners in “The Apprentice,” and the show had made each of them hundreds of millions of dollars. They were also close friends: Burnett liked to tell people that when Trump married Knauss, in 2005, Burnett’s son Cameron was the ring bearer.
Trump had been a celebrity since the eighties, his persona shaped by the best-selling book “The Art of the Deal.” But his business had foundered, and by 2003 he had become a garish figure of local interest—a punch line on Page Six. “The Apprentice” mythologized him anew, and on a much bigger scale, turning him into an icon of American success. Jay Bienstock, a longtime collaborator of Burnett’s, and the showrunner on “The Apprentice,” told me, “Mark always likes to compare his shows to great films or novels. All of Mark’s shows feel bigger than life, and this is by design.” Burnett has made many programs since “The Apprentice,” among them “Shark Tank,” a startup competition based on a Japanese show, and “The Voice,” a singing contest adapted from a Dutch program. In June, he became the chairman of M-G-M Television. But his chief legacy is to have cast a serially bankrupt carnival barker in the role of a man who might plausibly become the leader of the free world. “I don’t think any of us could have known what this would become,” Katherine Walker, a producer on the first five seasons of “The Apprentice,” told me. “But Donald would not be President had it not been for that show.”
Tony Schwartz, who wrote “The Art of the Deal,” which falsely presented Trump as its primary author, told me that he feels some responsibility for facilitating Trump’s imposture. But, he said, “Mark Burnett’s influence was vastly greater,” adding, “ ‘The Apprentice’ was the single biggest factor in putting Trump in the national spotlight.” Schwartz has publicly condemned Trump, describing him as “the monster I helped to create.” Burnett, by contrast, has refused to speak publicly about his relationship with the President or about his curious, but decisive, role in American history.