Decades from now, historians will still study all the points at which Donald Trump’s political career should have ended and yet somehow didn’t, and all the people personally responsible. Along with the likes of Hillary Clinton and James Comey, more minor names will come up—possibly even that of an Air Force veteran whose attempts to break into the TV industry set off, if he is to be believed, a series of the unlikeliest possible events.
"My friends," Mark Bethea said recently, "joke with me that I am the reason Donald Trump is president."
Nineteen years ago, Bethea, who is 58, put together a treatment, or pitch—published here for the first time, along with an accompanying PowerPoint presentation—for a show called C.E.O. He has long insisted that the documents helped inspire what became The Apprentice, the popular TV show that played a decisive role in shaping the public's view of Donald Trump as something more substantial than a lecherous racist with bankruptcy problems.
As has been the case with virtually everything surrounding Trump, the question of whose idea The Apprentice really was went to court. As has also often been the case with the now-president's beefs, the legal battle ended with a secret settlement. What these documents suggest is that like a Trump condo development built on "defective" concrete, the very foundation of what made him president may have fundamental cracks. They are visible now thanks to the emergence of this long-secret material.
Last Thursday, the Daily Beast reported that Donald Trump and Mark Burnett, the impresario behind The Apprentice, have discussed getting the president back into reality television as soon as he's out of the White House. They've apparently broached something called The Apprentice: White House. In a tweet, Trump denied it, as did a spokesperson for Burnett. But the buzz about the idea shows the franchise might yet have life.
Meanwhile, the settlement has not precluded Bethea from insisting that the very idea for The Apprentice, including the notion of Trump as its star, was effectively stolen from him. So if you want to pelt anyone with tomatoes over Trump's ascent to power, you ought to reserve a few for him.
In the 1990s, Bethea was an aspiring screenwriter working at a now-defunct private jet company XtraJet in Southern California. It was there, he recalled, that what he described as a cutthroat, hostile, and sexually inappropriate workplace gave him his idea. "One of the guys was absolutely disgusting," he said. "Every Monday morning I had to listen to his exploits at the strip club. And at one point he put naked girls on his screensaver." (XtraJet is now defunct and its C.E.O deceased.)
"I thought about: How do you negotiate office politics? That was the impetus behind the idea," Bethea said.
Bethea registered his treatment with the Writers Guild of America West in Los Angeles on August 30, 2000. "C.E.O.," he explained, "was the first reality show idea I had come up with." And it didn't take all that long for him to hone in on a top candidate to play a key role in the project.
"I was trying to think of somebody with a corporate background who would be a great caricature of a C.E.O. or chairman of the board, and Donald, even back then in 2000, Donald Trump was very bombastic," Bethea said. "He was a caricature, basically. I had Trump in mind first, and then I had Lee Iacocca [the former chairman of Chrysler] because, as I was developing this, I went to a speech Iacocca gave."
With his concept developed, Bethea needed to pitch it around to people who had sway in the industry. An acquaintance named Alan Preston, who worked in aviation, happened to know Conrad Riggs, a lawyer who managed business affairs for and helped develop ideas with Survivor producer and TV power player Burnett.
Having been introduced by Preston, Bethea met with Riggs at the manager's Santa Monica office in 2001, according to court documents. There, Bethea said, he pitched a car racing show and an air combat idea before dangling what he described as the most fleshed-out concept: C.E.O.
Riggs' own version of this meeting appears to have changed over time.
"There were two ideas, an airplane racing show with fighter pilots, and the other was car racing," Riggs recalled in an interview last year at a Santa Monica restaurant. "They were expensive and dangerous. Also too formulaic and uninsurable… And on the way out the door, he [Bethea] says, 'I have this other one, it's called C.E.O. and if you win you will become the C.E.O. of a company.' It wasn't The Apprentice. It was one of dozens in this genre. I said, 'No, thanks.'"
That account differs from the one Riggs offered in a 2004 federal copyright lawsuit filed by Bethea. "Mr. Riggs is clear that he "never discussed 'C.E.O.' or any related idea with Mr. Bethea at any time." wrote U.S. District Judge John F. Walter. Further, the judge noted, "Defendant Riggs, Defendant Burnett, Defendant Trump… each categorically deny having any knowledge of Plaintiff Bethea's concept for C.E.O. prior to Plaintiffs filing this lawsuit." (Riggs has consistently claimed that he never saw print or digital pitch materials, but declined to comment on the record about the apparent discrepancy in his past statements.)
The claim defies reason, Bethea insisted. "I had a professionally prepared PowerPoint presentation with a narrator and artwork on the CD cover," he said in a phone interview. "I have a meeting with the guy who represents the number one reality show producer in the world. How would I not pitch him my most developed reality project?"
The widely disseminated Apprentice origin story propounded by Burnett and many media accounts of Trump's political rise—even critical ones—is summed up in Burnett's 2005 autobiography Jump In! (Even if You Don't Know How to Swim). He portrays himself on the set of Survivor: The Amazon in late 2002—the year following Bethea's first meeting with Riggs—contemplating carnivorous jungle ants as they swarmed over animal carcasses: "Just like ants, people on the whole are industrious but will also pick your bones clean, given half a chance. I started to think about how to use the setting of an urban jungle for a new show."
The 2004 federal suit contains a nuanced version of the origin story in which Burnett was at least partly inspired by someone else’s work.
"Mr. Burnett describes in great detail how the idea 'germinated' after he watched a BBC documentary entitled Trouble at the Top 'which dealt with people competing to win a job with a British businessman.' Defendant Burnett further explains that he immediately discussed his concept with a friend, Marlene Plomik, who he was staying with at the time. […]. Ms. Plomik further states that although she 'found the BBC show to be boring and dry' and 'repeatedly asked Mr. Burnett to change the channel to something more interesting … Mr. Burnett was very interested in the show and refused to change the channel.'"
The fog of creation is thick. In Trump's 2004 book, How to Get Rich, he squeezes the timeline tighter than anyone else, compression that—unsurprisingly—makes him decisive and central to the show's creation. Trump and the book's co-author Meredith McIver wrote that the first time Trump met Burnett at the broadcast of the 2002 Survivor finale from Wollman Rink in New York's Central Park, "He said, 'You know, Mr. Trump, I have an idea and I'd love to see you at your earliest possible convenience.' A week later he came to my office."
In Burnett's various tellings, he consistently recalls that months or even longer passed between the time he first met Trump at the Survivor finale in May 2002, had the idea germinate in the Brazilian Amazon in late 2002, and eventually talked it over with Riggs at a dinner in Malibu—where Riggs says Burnett's preferred title was Protégé. As Burnett and Riggs developed the idea over time, he asserts, they considered various hosts, including Warren Buffett, Richard Branson, Jack Welch, and Trump, before Burnett finally met with Trump at Trump Tower to discuss The Apprentice specifically.
Still, Bethea wasn't alone in thinking he got hosed.
In 2003, Bethea's friend Kevin Bryant recalled, he saw an announcement in the Hollywood trades about production starting for The Apprentice. “I was like, 'Oh, wow, Mark got a show.'" Bryant said. "I called him to congratulate him and he's like, 'Uh, no, they stole my idea.' I'm like, 'Oh, fuck.'"
If you read Bethea's pitch, you do see at least some of the essential elements that became The Apprentice: a boardroom, brand endorsements, and a powerful C.E.O. at the nexus of the show.
Eventually, Trump was deposed in 2005 in New York by Bethea's lawyer, Ronald Makarem. "Our main goal was to have Trump testify that he had never had a conversation about being on a reality show with Burnett at any point before Mark Bethea brought this idea to Conrad Riggs," Makarem said. "Trump confirmed this."
But U.S. District Judge John Walter dismissed the federal version of the legal proceedings in June 2005. A key reason for granting summary judgement on most of the federal issues of the case in favor of Burnett, Riggs, Trump, NBC Universal, and Apprentice lead producer Jay Bienstock was the judge's finding that key similarities between The Apprentice and C.E.O. were not copyrightable. On the elements that were unique to each, "no reasonable juror could find that C.E.O. and The Apprentice are substantially similar," he wrote. He added that in C.E.O., "Each challenge relates to a different facet of 'running' the corporation, such as human resources, marketing, or accounting, with the corporation as the focus of the task." In The Apprentice, "the tasks typically involve testing the contestants [sic] ability to create a product and sell it for the greatest gain in a short period of time." Further, the judge wrote, "one would expect to find a boardroom … in any television program that is set in a corporate environment." There were other issues in the case, such as the alleged breach of an implied contract between Riggs and Bethea, that the judge decided belonged in the jurisdiction of California state court.
When I was working on a Trump book that came out this summer, I put questions about the show's origins to Burnett's media representatives. They sent a copy of Judge Walter's order dismissing the federal copyright case and arranged for me to speak to a high-ranking MGM executive. (MGM owns the rights to The Apprentice.) The executive insisted on not allowing any of his direct quotes to be used or his name printed. Over two hours, he explained: how people sue unfairly all the time over who came up with what idea, so I should consider that; how journalists are not trustworthy; how he prefers Mormon politicians because they always park between the white lines; and how Billy Bush was treated unfairly in having an unflattering outtake like the Access Hollywood tape released.
Asked for further comment for this article, a spokesperson for Burnett referred me back to the book on Trump I co-authored, The Method to the Madness, citing the passage, "According to Riggs and Burnett, The Apprentice was developed along a completely separate track" [from Bethea]. The spokesperson added that "Riggs himself has said Burnett came up with the concept for The Apprentice."
NBC, Jay Bienstock, and the White House did not reply to calls and emails requesting comment.
Whoever invented it, Riggs gives little credit to Burnett for the final shape of Apprentice, saying a team Riggs assembled took a general concept about business competition and then sat in a room in L.A. and hashed it out. "Who really created the format of the show was a couple writers on a work-for-hire contract," Riggs said. He is listed as a co-executive producer on one episode of Apprentice and 293 episodes of Survivor. "It wasn't really Mark Burnett. But, you know, pigs get slaughtered and hogs get fatter—this is the TV business," he added.
And in fact, one of the most memorable competitions in season one was a lemonade stand, pitting women against men to sell drinks on the street in New York. That was dreamed up in the first production meeting by L.A. producer Darryl Silver, shown in notes he jotted in his notebook from the time. In other words, in this telling, Burnett, at best, came up with a germ of an idea that was developed by others. Given a chance, C.E.O. would also have evolved during development, as all TV shows do.
By May 2006, Bethea's team of attorneys, eventually including prominent gadfly and alleged criminal Michael Avenatti, were preparing to appeal Walter's decision on grounds that the judge had overstepped his authority in deciding what a reasonable jury could find.
"Do you know how many people claim to have come up with the idea for Star Wars?" Avenatti said in an interview in August 2018. "But this was legit. Mark Bethea absolutely came up with the idea for The Apprentice."
Bethea's team was also pursuing a California state "idea theft" suit that was due to start testimony in May 2006. But state and federal cases were jointly settled out of court with an undisclosed settlement paid to Bethea. Riggs characterized it this way: "It was dismissed in federal court but then it was re-brought in California court. We said this guy is a nuisance. You smell when someone is slimy. This is why I got him out of my office. We paid him some small amount of money to settle it. It was such a distraction. Paid him in the hundreds of thousands to settle it—which we would have spent on lawyers defending ourselves."
Neither Bethea nor any of his lawyers would discuss the exact settlement amount, citing a confidentiality agreement.
That's when things really got weird: Two years after the Bethea case was settled, Riggs sued Burnett, claiming he was owed more than $70 million for work, including helping develop The Apprentice and Survivor. Burnett countersued, saying he'd already paid him an agreed-upon $25 million. The case was settled in 2012 for an undisclosed amount. In two transactions in 2014 and 2015, Burnett sold his company, along with rights to Survivor and The Apprentice, to MGM for more than $500 million. Burnett was put in charge of the MGM Television and Digital Group in 2015, with the title of chairman of the studio's Worldwide Television Group added in 2018.
Money like that buys Malibu mansions, but not love. Burnett is blamed by much of Hollywood for not doing more to stop a Trump presidency. For instance, Burnett claimed he did not have the right to release unedited recordings from The Apprentice, which an Apprentice producer, Bill Pruitt, told me would include Trump using the N-word, and contestant Summer Zervos has suggested would show him engaging in harassing behavior towards women. Burnett, like Doctor Frankenstein, the argument goes, failed to destroy his creation when he could have. (Burnett's longstanding position has been that since he sold his company to MGM and has "contractual and legal obligations," he does not have the power to release anything associated with The Apprentice, despite his powerful role in the executive ranks. It is not known if he has ever sought their release. The spokesperson referred back to his past statements.)
"Mark Burnett not only knows he has it on film, but he refuses to give it out," Rosie O’Donnell told me. "He's made billions of dollars off of this whole concept, and could be credited for taking down democracy."
That leaves the nearly forgotten Bethea, who continues to claim he invented The Apprentice and therefore the current presidency. "The fact that Donald Trump took this and used it as leverage or whatever, and ended up becoming president," he said, "that's an unintended side-effect of what I was doing."
Bethea remains more upset about the injustice he says was done to him by Riggs and Burnett than President Trump's policies. Trump, whom Bethea said did not contribute to his settlement payout, was, he said, friendly during the legal proceedings. ("He was very experienced at giving depositions and he didn't show annoyance.") Reminded that Black Apprentice contestants like Randal Pinkett have called Trump racist, Bethea, who is Black, called the president only "racially insensitive," before pivoting back to the what-if: "The show that I created, C.E.O., would have, without a doubt, really changed my life. It would've put me on the map in my dream industry. That's the way I feel about it. I am very, very proud of the show that I put together."
If he'd been offered a job on The Apprentice back when it started, Bethea said, he would have been satisfied and not sued. Still striving, he said he was working on TV and novel ideas.
Bethea has no access to secret Apprentice tapes, nor to the White House. But he may have contributed significantly to creating the world we live in now. If you hurl a tomato at him, hurl softly. For now, his stories are all he has.
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