NEW YORK — In his years as a reality TV boss on "The Apprentice," Donald Trump repeatedly demeaned women with sexist language, according to show insiders who said he rated female contestants by the size of their breasts and talked about which ones he'd like to have sex with.
The Associated Press interviewed more than 20 people — former crew members, editors and contestants — who described crass behavior by Trump behind the scenes of the long-running hit show, in which aspiring capitalists were given tasks to perform as they competed for jobs working for him.
The staffers and contestants agreed to recount their experiences as Trump's behavior toward women has become a core issue in the presidential campaign. Interviewed separately, they gave concurring accounts of inappropriate conduct on the set.
Eight former crew members recalled that he repeatedly made lewd comments about a camerawoman he said had a nice rear, comparing her beauty to that of his daughter, Ivanka.
During one season, Trump called for female contestants to wear shorter dresses that also showed more cleavage, according to contestant Gene Folkes. Several cast members said Trump had one female contestant twirl before him so he could ogle her figure.
Randal Pinkett, who won the program in December 2005 and who has recently criticized Trump during his run for president, said he remembered the real estate mogul talking about which female contestants he wanted to sleep with, even though Trump had married former model Melania Knauss earlier that year: "He was like 'Isn't she hot, check her out,' kind of gawking, something to the effect of 'I'd like to hit that.' "
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The Trump campaign issued a general denial. "These outlandish, unsubstantiated, and totally false claims fabricated by publicity hungry, opportunistic, disgruntled former employees, have no merit whatsoever," said Hope Hicks, Trump's campaign spokeswoman. "'The Apprentice' was one of the most successful prime-time television shows of all time and employed hundreds of people over many years, many of whom support Mr. Trump's candidacy." She declined to answer specific questions that were emailed and declined an interview request.
Former producer Katherine Walker said Trump frequently talked about women's bodies during the five seasons she worked with him and said he speculated about which female contestant would be "a tiger in bed."
A former crew member who signed a non-disclosure agreement and asked not to be identified, recalled that Trump asked male contestants whether they would sleep with a particular female contestant, then expressed his own interest.
"We were in the boardroom one time figuring out who to blame for the task, and he just stopped in the middle and pointed to someone and said, 'You'd f*** her, wouldn't you? I'd f*** her. C'mon, wouldn't you?'"
The person continued: "Everyone is trying to make him stop talking, and the woman is shrinking in her seat."
Other cast and crew interviewed said they had positive, professional experiences with Trump, and added that they had never heard comments that made them uncomfortable.
"He was extremely supportive. You could tell there was so much respect there on all sides, especially with the female athletes," said contestant and U.S. softball star Jennie Finch, a two-time Olympian. "Obviously, he was complimentary, but never in an inappropriate way."
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Contestant Poppy Carlig, who performed the twirl, said she considered Trump's request "playful banter." She added: "I don't immediately jump to the conclusion that people are having bad intentions with what they are saying. He said I reminded him of his daughter and I thought that was really touching because I know how much he values his family."
Twelve former contestants or members of the crew spoke on the record about what they described as Trump's inappropriate behavior. Another nine spoke to the AP about their concerns regarding Trump's treatment of female colleagues but said they did not want to be identified because they signed non-disclosure agreements, or were concerned about wrecking their careers or retaliation from Trump.
Most offered no opinion on the November election in the course of their interviews, but the majority of those who did said only that they were not supporting Trump.
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Trump points to his record of hiring women, but he has often been accused of sexist behavior; at the first Republican debate, in August 2015, Fox anchor Megyn Kelly asked whether a man who has called women "fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals" has the temperament to be president. After that debate, Trump attacked Kelly and her questioning, "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever."
The remarks of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, who said Trump called her "Miss Piggy" because she'd gained weight during her reign, became campaign fodder last week following the first presidential debate. Trump used to own the pageant.
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NBC, which broadcast the hit series, referred questions to executive producer Mark Burnett, whose studio referred calls to a public relations firm. The public relations firm did not respond to multiple voicemails and emails seeking comment. AP previously asked Burnett to provide original footage for review, but those calls were not returned.
Debuting in 2004, "The Apprentice" and a spinoff, "Celebrity Apprentice," propelled Trump to national stardom following a string of bankruptcies and bad business deals in the 1990s that had splintered his New York-based real estate empire. The series, meant to showcase Trump's business acumen, became a major hit and Trump's name became a global brand that helped launch his political career.
But on the set, usually inside Trump Tower, the former cast and crew members say, the businessman's treatment of women was sometimes far from professional.
Walker, who said she was the only high-level female producer during the first season, said Trump turned to her during a break outside of the control room to ask who he should fire. Walker demurred, she said, but noted that team members had told her one contestant had caused her team to lose their business task. Trump raised his hands and cupped them to his chest to ask whether it was a contestant with large breasts, she said.
"He said, 'You mean the one with the' — and he puts his hands out in a gesture to signal the girl with the giant boobs. He didn't even know her name," Walker said, adding that the contestant, Kristi Frank, was fired at the end of the episode.
"I thought he noticed my hard work, but I guess he didn't," said Frank, a former restaurant owner who studied industrial engineering.
She said that after Trump delivered his punch line "You're fired!" he told her fiancé that "of all the girls," she was the contestant he would have chosen to marry.
"It makes me a little sick," Frank said. "It's kind of sweet, but it makes me feel like 'OK, he's checking me out again.'"
In portions of boardroom sessions never broadcast, Trump frequently would ask male contestants to rate the attractiveness of their female competitors, former crew members and contestants said.
"If there was a break in the conversation, he would then look at one of the female cast members, saying, 'you're looking kind of hot today, I love that dress on you,' then he would turn to one of the male cast members and say, 'wouldn't you sleep with her?' and then everyone would laugh," said a former crew member who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a non-disclosure agreement. "There would be about 10 or 12 cameras rolling and getting that footage, which is why everybody was like, this guy just doesn't care."
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Trump would carry on with the questions even if all involved were married, said Gene Folkes, who appeared on the program in 2010.
Folkes said he also remembered that Trump "asked one of the women their breast size at one point, or said, 'are those real or natural?'"
Jim Dowd, who did public relations for Trump, NBC and "The Apprentice" shows between 2003 and 2009, said Trump was a "lover of women" and a "guy's guy."
"Was he complimenting the women? Of course. Was he behind closed doors with just the guys rating the women, who were the hotter ones on the show? Yes, he certainly was prone to that," Dowd said.