Video: Trump’s TV makeover

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Dateline NBC
updated 4/17/2004 11:41:33 PM ET 2004-04-18T03:41:33

Donald Trump can get back to his day job now that he has a new apprentice to help him. After hiring winner Bill Ransic, Trump told him to get right to work earning his new $250,000 salary.  After all the time they spent together on "The Apprentice," the two should know each other pretty well by now, and over the past few months, we've gotten to know Trump better.

What surprises many people -- including him -- is how much more everyone seems to like him these days. Did this reality show reveal the real Donald Trump? And what his life's really like from the boardroom to the bedroom?

Stone Phillips: “Is the pillow talk about everything?”

Donald Trump: “We absolutely talk about everything.”

Phillips: “Is there anything you do not share with one another?”

Trump: “No. I think we talk...”

Melania Knauss: “You need to.”

Phillips: “What does he look like when he wakes up in the morning?”

Knauss: “Very handsome.”

Phillips: “Right answer.”

Trump: “That was a very good answer.”

That’s high praise from his supermodel sweetheart. And for Donald Trump, the higher the better, whether it's his Trump buildings, or more recently, his TV ratings. Just as he's transformed the skyline of New York City, he's now transformed the landscape of reality television.  

Trump: “If you would have told me that was going to happen, in light of what I know about television shows, I would have said, you know, pretty unlikely. But it's caught the spark of this country.”

Leave it to The Donald to take a dreaded phrase, “Your fired,” add a cobra-like flick of the wrist and create a pop-culture phenomenon.

In the show's opening credits, Trump's motto is spelled out: "It's nothing personal, it's just business."  It’s a not-so-subtle warning that in Trump's made-for-TV boardroom, only the strong survive. But his weekly firing squad has resulted in something totally unexpected. 

Trump: “It's been amazing. I do laugh at the fact that so many people, like me now. And you know, the show's pretty tough. It's really tough. And I think my reputation was being like a flame thrower, too tough as far as I was concerned. Much tougher than the fact.”

Phillips: “So you think it's softened your image a little bit? And that's much truer to who you are?”

Trump: “My image is much more accurately portrayed on the show than I think the image before the show. And it's strange that it softens an image and I fire people.”

Trump suspects it's his candor, just before the carnage, that viewers are responding to.

Trump: “I offer constructive criticism in some cases. And I'll tell them where they're wrong and I'll tell them where they're right. And I guess a lot of people agree with what I'm doing or what I'm saying.”

Video: Trump’s TV makeover But firing people in real life, Trump admits, has never won him any popularity contests, no matter how hard he tries to ease their pain.

Trump: “I've taken people and fired them over a period of a year. I've fired them over a period of a month. I've fired them over a period of a day or a week, nice and easy, slow. The one thing that a firing always has in common is the next day they wake up and they hate Donald Trump, no matter how nice you are.“

Phillips: “Do these contestants that you fire hate you?”

Trump: “I don't think so. I think they like me more than a lot of the other people that I've fired.”

We caught up with Trump at his mansion in Palm Beach, Fla. He's converted the former estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post into a private and very exclusive club. Membership's open to anyone, but you need pretty deep pockets to join this playground.

Phillips: “How much are they paying for membership?”

Trump: “They pay $150,000 to join, they pay $10,000 a year and they love it.”

Trump bought the property in 1985 for wife number one, Ivana. But these days there's a new first lady.

Born in Slovenia, 30-year-old Melania Knauss started modeling in Europe before coming to America. She and the 57-year-old Trump have been dating for five years.

Phillips: “So, how is it living the simple life with Donald?”

Knauss: “Simple life?”

Phillips: “Do you feel at home in Donald's world?”

Knauss: “Yes, I do. If I were not feel home, I will not be here.”

Phillips: “What is it about him that drew you to him and makes you feel that way?”

Trump: “His looks.”

Knauss: “That's right. He's very handsome. He has a great sense of humor. He's very intelligent and he has a big heart.”

And after two high-profile marriages and even higher profile divorces, Trump told us this partnership just works.

Phillips: “She's not high maintenance?”

Trump: “Well, probably she is for other people. I would say that Melania for other people would be really impossible. But for me, she's very easy. She's — we just get along well.”

Trump says he and his television partner are also getting along famously. Trump shares ownership of "The Apprentice" with producer, Mark Burnett. Up until this year, Burnett was better known for "Survivor," where contestants vote each other off a jungle island.

Trump: “And you know, I told Mark that New York City is the toughest jungle of them all. Much tougher than any of the jungles that they go on in ‘Survivor.’ Much, much tougher.”

Phillips: “Is that what led to the notion, the idea for the show?”

Trump: “Yes. And I think New York is one of the reasons why this has become so successful. I mean the city is eating these geniuses up alive. It's eating them up alive, Stone. And it's showing the beauty of the city, but it's showing the toughness and the viciousness of the city. And that's what viewers obviously are loving.”

While Burnet's mastery of Reality TV shaped the look and feel of their joint venture, Trump insists that Burnett gave him the power to decide who survives in the concrete jungle of Manhattan.     

Trump: “He told me, right from the beginning, ‘The decision is totally yours.’ You know and he's never veered from that. He's never come to me and said, ‘Try not to fire Sam, because Sam is great television. Try not to fire Omarosa. Please keep her longer.’”

Phillips: “So it's more important to you to find the best qualified Apprentice than to keep the ratings up?”

Trump: “I have never fired anyone or kept anyone because of ratings or because of entertainment. I keep the people that I think are the best.”

Phillips: “How much control do you have over the content and direction of the show?”

Trump: “Well, I have a lot because when I'm in the boardroom nobody tells me what to do. I mean I just do whatever I want to do. Even the words, ‘You're fired,’ that was not scripted.”

Phillips: ”So you guys didn't get together beforehand and decide that it was all going to lead up to those two words, ‘You're fired?’”

Trump: “The boardroom scene was going on 45 minutes, 50 minutes. And all of a sudden, I said, ‘David, you're fired.’ And the place went nuts. And it was just, I realized as I was saying it, those two words are very beautiful. They're very, very definite. You can't come back and say, ‘Well, let's talk it over.’ It's like over… You know, I'm not even so sure that the show would have been a huge success had we not done that.”

Phillips: “And what about the gesture?”

Trump: “Well, the one gesture was funny. I don't know how I did it, I don't know why I did it. But the one gesture was sort of a little different… And I have never used that gesture in my life. I probably will never use it again. I've used the finger, this one. I've used nothing. I've used just the lips, the mouth saying, ‘You're fired.’ But I've never used this one before.”

Words and gestures are one thing, but what about the message? Does "The Apprentice" set the right example for aspiring business leaders?

Phillips: “Critics have said that in this era of Enron and ImClone and Tyco, that the show is sending the wrong kind of message about corporate leadership. How do you respond to that?”

Trump: “You know, we have a group of people that have to lead. And what we're trying to teach is something about leadership. It's about competitiveness, it's about winning. And there's nothing wrong with winning.”

Phillips: “Money, money, money, money. I mean from the song to the kind of way things unfold on the show, it's all about that, isn't it?”

Trump: “No, I think it's about personality. I think it's about heart. I think it's about 'stick-to-it-ness.' I think it's about a lot of things. It's not only about money. You know, when we have the 850,000 people that have applied for Apprentice Two… Thousands and thousands of people went down to Wall Street, they're all in suits. They really have ambition. And you know what? The country needs that. People that are going to go out and do it. And that's what this show is about, it's about doing it.”

Phillips: “So this is your contribution?”

Trump: “I don't know if it's a contribution. I think I'm making a lot of people happy. I mean I go down the street and people are screaming, ‘You're fired. You're fired.’ They're laughing. They're having fun, they love it.”

But sharp criticism of the show has even appeared in the pages of Wall Street's bible.    

Phillips: “One of the show's critics, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, from the Yale School of Management..

Trump: “Eeech, this guy… this guy gets more publicity off this show.”

Phillips: “He wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. ‘The assigned team projects neglect the core function of leadership: Integrity. Invention. Inspiration. No business innovations surface. And no societal problems are solved. Instead we see people hawking sex, clothes, booze, water, bags of dirt, more sex and celebrity access.’”

Trump: “So?”

Phillips: “Does he have a point?”

Trump: “No, that's life. That's business. The real world has all of the things he hates. He says there's too much sex, it doesn't exist. Excuse me, it doesn't exist in building? I can tell you it exists, from personal knowledge. Much personal knowledge.”

Phillips: “But his point, Donald, his point, they sell together as a team and then they sell each other out.”

Trump: “You don't think that happens in real life?”

Phillips: “But is that the kind of corporate culture you would want to create at your company?”

Trump: “This is reality. People sell each other out all the time.”

Phillips: “But do you want to encourage it?”

Trump: “I'm not encouraging it, I'm just explaining it.”

Phillips: “Should it be rewarded?”

Trump: “Excuse me, it's not being encouraged. We're not saying, ‘Go out there and be bad people.’ If anything we're saying, ‘Go out and be good people and win.’”

Phillips: “But if one of the contestants does a better job of selling the other guy out, that contestant wins.”

Trump: “Well, maybe that's real life though. Isn't that life? That's the way it works.”

But even Trump concedes that in the early episodes of the show, business and sex did co-mingled a little too much. So, does “The Apprentice” reinforce the wrong strategies for how to succeed on the job?

Trump: “There were a couple of episodes where they went a little bit out there. But that's life. Life is loaded up with sex. A big portion of your day is thinking about sex. Do you think much about sex? Huh?”

Phillips: “You know, I knew you were going to work around to that.”

Trump: “I had to get myself off the hotspot… Look, you have a line. And you don't want to cross the line. You don't want to go over the line.”

The show began with eight men and eight women, sharing an apartment in Trump Tower but divided by gender when it came to work. The men competed against the women in tasks ranging from selling lemonade to renting an apartment. And the playing field seemed fairly level, until the women began flaunting their assets.

Phillips: “In your mind when did the women go too far with the sex stuff to sell?”

Trump: “Well, the women just used it too much. It wasn't a question of too far. I'm not sure they did go too far. But every event was like sex, whether it was lemonade, whether it was renting the apartment, fixing it, everything. The contractor comes in. They're all over him. They're kissing him, hugging him.”

By week four, the hawking started looking an awful lot like hooking, so, The Donald called the women on the carpet.

Trump: “I was very proud of myself. I reprimanded the women. Can you imagine me of all people reprimanding the women for using too much sex? I was very proud of myself.”

Phillips: “You scolded them.”

Trump: “I did.”

Phillips: “On the other hand, Mr. Executive Producer—“

Trump: “You think I meant it when I scolded them? Or do you think I did that because I thought it was good for my image?”

Phillips: “Well, I hope you meant it.”

Trump: “Okay.”

Phillips: “Did you?”

Trump: “Ah, let me think about that.”

When the show did away with the gender divide, mixing the teams, Trump was surprised to see a new dynamic emerge. The women were no longer the dynamos.

Trump: “When we merged the two teams and we now put men with the women, the women went back into the background. I don't know what happened.”

Phillips: “Five straight got fired.” 

Trump: “I said, ‘What happened to you people?’ They were superstars. They were doing unbelievably well. Now think of it.”

Phillips: “So what does that say to you?”

Trump: “I don't know. Maybe that's life. Could that be possible?”

Phillips: “Well, what do you think?”

Trump: “I never thought of it until this show. I never saw anything quite like it where the women are totally dominant. They were kicking the men so badly, just beating them routinely every night.  And then as soon as I took these same women that had won so many times and put them with the men, they lost it. I don't know, is that reality? I haven't got the courage to say.”

Maybe that's because he might have to answer to Carolyn Kepcher. If that Trump executive is any example of what the boss expects from women in his organization, it's safe to say taking a back seat to men is not part of their job description.

Trump: “Nasty is never good. But nasty with brains is okay. Carolyn in tough. She's smart, she's tough, she happens to be very attractive.”

When she's not being a bulldog in the boardroom, Kepcher runs one of Trump's golf courses. And when he's not working on a deal, chances are, he's working on his swing. He's a competitive golfer with a five handicap, and invited us to join him at his Trump International Golf Course in Florida. Membership there is a mere $350,000. 

Despite his newfound TV stardom, Trump says real estate is still his bread-and-butter. His net worth is about $6 billion, according to Trump, though Forbes Magazine puts it closer to $2.5 billion, and growing.

Still, for all his success, his wealth and his fame, not all his business ventures have taken off. Recently there's been a lot of negative press about his Atlantic City casinos and hotels. They only represent about two-percent of his portfolio, but the headlines have clearly hit a nerve.

Phillips: “’Based on performance of this company, it's mired in debt, it has not been profitable for years-“

Trump: “Look, look, let me tell you—“

Phillips: “Should your job be secure as head of this company?”

Trump: “I think so. Let me just tell you. I'm an entrepreneur. Over the years I made a lot of money with Atlantic City. This company over the coming years will be very good. I have a lot of confidence.”

Phillips: “Why isn't it doing better?”

Trump: “The company right now has a lot of competition. A major new casino opened there. Indian casinos are opening up all over the place. And it's got competition.”

Phillips: “But your competition's doing better than you are.”

Trump: “I don't say that — no, I don't think so—“

Phillips: “In Atlantic City.”

Trump: “Excuse me. If you look at the Taj Mahal over the last three or four years, it's always been, virtually always been number one.”

But with the hotel and casino company straining under a mountain of debt, and financial pressures building, according to The New York Times there is talk of a possible change at the top.

Phillips: “Should you be fired as CEO of this company based, based on performance?”

Trump: “Entrepreneurially? Entrepreneurially, absolutely not. It's going to be a very good company over the years.  We're reducing debt. We're getting the debt down. But again, I thought the story was an unfair story.”

Trump tells a very different story, in his latest book, “ How to Get Rich.”  In it, “The Apprentice” star offers advice to the average Joe on how to make money, and how to avoid hearing those now famous words, "you're fired.”

Phillips: “How to get rich, here's a few tips that you offer. Know everything about what you're doing.”

Trump: “Well, ideally that's true.”

Phillips: “Have an ego.”

Trump: “I've never once in my life known a person who was successful who didn't have a big ego. Ego's not a bad thing.”

Phillips: “This may come under the heading of how to stay rich rather than how to get rich. You say, get a pre-nuptial agreement."

Trump: “Right.”

Phillips: “Yours have held up pretty well.”

Trump: “They've totally held up. Had I not had two very strong and very fair pre-nuptial agreements, but very strong, you would not be interviewing me right now unless you were talking about let's find a loser, and we want to interview a loser.”

Phillips: “So, what's the key to getting rich?”

Trump: “First of all, you have to born with a brain. I mean, you can't be a dummy and say I'm going to become a multi-billionaire some day. But, more than anything else, you have to love what you do, and beyond that, you can't ever give up.”

Phillips: “Passion? Passion?”

Trump: “Passion. If there's a concrete wall in front of you, you have to go through that wall, over the wall, around the wall. You can't give up, and you have to love what you're doing. Or you'll never be good at it.”

Phillips: “Does making money make you happy?”

Trump: “No, it's a scorecard. It's fun. But I don't do things to make money. I do it because I love it. And I happen to make money with it. But I do it because I love it.”

By the way, Trump devotes an entire chapter in his new book to that rooftop garden on his head.

Trump: “I have been abused on my hair. And I'm trying to figure, is it that bad?”

Phillips: “Well, you know what?”

Trump: “What?”

Phillips: “A picture is worth a thousand follicles. When I saw you on one of these episodes out there at that construction site with your hair blowing in the wind, it answered the burning question.”

Trump: “Finally. Finally. Well, other people, you know, during interviews I've had people rip at my hair and grab it and everything else. So you know of course they don't want to report that.”

Phillips: “How do you think it's looking tonight?”

Trump: “I think it looks, who knows? I mean good enough. Never great, but good enough… Alright fellas, can I take my girlfriend to dinner, my little baby?”

Phillips: “No, we want to get her in here.”

Trump: “Oh. Honey, grab a chair!”

Melania Knauss is way more than just a dinner date to Donald, but the couple has been tight-lipped about their future together.

Phillips: “Is this forever? The two of you?”

Trump: “Well, that's not to be discussed on camera, but we just have a great and special relationship.”

Phillips: “Is it different from any other relationship either one of you have ever had? Is there a better connection?”

Trump: “It's as good a connection as you could have. We just get along well, it's a very easy relationship, wouldn't you say?”

Knauss: “I think I understand him very well. I think I know what he wants to do, where he's coming from. I know him. I understand him.”

If you're wondering whether Trump's concerned about over exposure these days, he told us, he is. But don't look for his name to come off any buildings, books, planes, or products anytime soon. Starring in a television show has taken a lot more of Trump's time than he ever expected -- more than 30 hours a week, he told us, on top of everything else he does. Still, he has inked a new deal with NBC for two more rounds and more chances to deliver those two words that have become his trademark.

Phillips: “Can this show work without you?”

Trump: “Well, the answer is, I hope so.  Because I'm not going to be doing this for the rest of my life, you know.”

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