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A new account rekindles allegations that Trump disrespected Black people on ‘The Apprentice’

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Gene Folkes had just been jettisoned as a contestant on “The Apprentice” and was commiserating with a crew member at a bar inside the lobby of Trump Tower. He was indignant — and not just at having been kicked off the reality show after its star, Donald Trump, had delivered his catchphrase: “You’re fired.”

One of two Black contestants chosen for that season in 2010, Folkes was insulted that Trump had called him inarticulate and accused him of illiteracy in a lengthy boardroom tirade minutes earlier.

As the crew member, a Black woman who worked as a contestant manager, consoled him, Trump suddenly appeared at the bar.

“He came up and he asked me: ‘Is this your woman? Because you two would make a really great couple. You both have the same background,’” Folkes told The Associated Press.

The contestant manager quietly reminded Trump that she worked for him. Then, Trump made a comment similar to something he uttered in the boardroom that never aired on TV, Folkes said.

“He said again, ‘It’s not like I used the N-word,’ and then he walked off, and that was that,” said Folkes, a New York-based consultant, podcast host and U.S. Air Force veteran.

As Trump seeks to make inroads with African American voters in his third run for the White House, fresh allegations are surfacing about his disrespectful behavior toward Black people inside the Manhattan skyscraper that launched his show and political career. There are still questions about whether any of that behavior was caught on tape.

Bill Pruitt, a former producer on “The Apprentice,” published a recent account alleging that Trump actually used the racist slur to refer to Kwame Jackson, a Black contestant who was a finalist on the show’s first season. A spokesperson for Trump’s campaign has vehemently dismissed the account about the Republican ex-president as false and politically motivated. President Joe Biden’s Democratic campaign, meanwhile, spotlighted Pruitt’s account on social media.

Trump, who hosted “The Apprentice” from 2004 to 2015, has long denied such claims and called former contestants criticizing him “failing wannabes” motivated by greed. But he has been trailed in his professional and political life by charges of racism, from a 1973 discrimination lawsuit against his real estate business, to his push to carry out executions of five Black and Latino youths who were later exonerated of rape allegations, to his yearslong fanning of the conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, was not born in the United States.

Trump’s first campaign in 2016 was rocked by allegations about his conduct on “The Apprentice” and other appearances during his association with NBC, notably in footage in which he said he could sexually assault women and get away with it because he was a “star.” MGM Studios, which bought the production company that made the show, has since been acquired by Amazon.

Almost a decade after he left his reality TV role to run for president, Trump’s television career remains central to his biography and political rise. It presented Trump Tower to tens of millions of people as a symbol of power and success before Trump launched his first campaign from the building’s lobby. Last week, the same lobby was the setting for his first appearance after being convicted of 34 felony counts in a hush money scheme to influence the 2016 election.

”‘The Apprentice’ is probably underrated as a source of that kind of image construction,” said Joel Penney, a professor at Montclair State University who studies the intersection of pop culture and politics. “There’s nobody who could possibly compete on the level of name recognition, brand recognition, that kind of familiarity.”

THE ROLES OF NBC AND AMAZON

“The Apprentice” and its spinoffs were on air for more than a decade, featuring people from all walks of life and later celebrities who competed in contrived business challenges to win Trump’s favor — and potentially a job with his organization.

Hundreds of cast and crew members signed non-disclosure agreements, limiting their ability to reveal what happened inside Trump Tower or any outtakes featuring the ex-president. The show’s producer as well as the network that broadcast it also have refused to release unaired footage. Over the last week, after the AP reached out to more than two dozen former crew members and contestants about Trump’s behind-the-scenes behavior, some said they wondered how contractual agreements may have insulated Trump from blowback about politically volatile comments.

Folkes said he believes his exchanges with Trump inside the bar were recorded since he was still wearing a mic.

After his firing in October 2010, Folkes blogged about his experience on the show. He said he soon got a call from NBC executives. According to a document provided by Folkes, in early November NBC’s then-vice president for legal affairs, Shelly Tremain, sent him a cease-and-desist order and said the network would seek to recover $1 million if he kept talking about his participation in the series or violating his “application agreement.”

Folkes fired back to Tremain’s team in an email, saying his portrayal on the show was “unfortunate, inaccurate, stereotyping being applied to a member of a protected class,” according to a copy of the message viewed by the AP. “Review the boardroom scene of episode 5 in its entirety for a very clear picture of the false portrayal and stereotyping … I harbor no interest in publicly commenting about Mr. Trump.”

Folkes said the network did provide him with extra therapy sessions following his firing, which he said helped him to process the reputational damage he suffered as a contestant. NBC declined to comment about him and Tremain did not respond to a message.

“After a decade of (military) service, I can take a lot of stress. It’s not like, ‘Oh, he fired me and hurt my feelings,’” Folkes said. “When I say I am offended, that is a high bar to cross.”

Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung said in a statement that “these completely fabricated accusations” had already been debated in 2016 “and thoroughly debunked,” dismissing all of them as rooted in campaign politics.

“Now that Crooked Joe Biden and the Democrats are losing the election, and President Trump continues to dominate, they are bringing up old fake stories from the past because they are desperate,” he said.

Folkes previously spoke out against Trump’s candidacy and his comments toward and about female cast and crew members in an AP investigation published in October 2016. After reading the AP story, “Access Hollywood” producers said they dug into their own show’s archive, uncovering a 2005 tape in which Trump made lewd remarks about being sexually aggressive toward women.

The tape sparked outrage and calls from some Republicans for Trump to drop out a month before the election. He didn’t — and won. But many of his opponents have continued to press those involved in “The Apprentice” to release their archives, partly out of a belief that a tape of Trump using the racist slur exists.

Entertainment giant MGM said in 2016 that it owned the archive of the reality TV show and contractual obligations kept it from unilaterally releasing any unaired, archived material. In 2022, the online shopping giant Amazon finalized its acquisition of MGM, one of the oldest studios in Hollywood. Amazon MGM Studios declined to comment.

The show’s executive producer Mark Burnett also has said that he doesn’t have the ability or right to release footage from the show. NBC has stated that it does not own the series footage and only licensed it from Burnett for broadcast.

A NEW ACCOUNT

Writing for Slate in an article published last week, Pruitt described a meeting with Trump in the show’s boardroom set, where he famously would dismiss contestants.

According to Pruitt’s account, one of Trump’s company’s managers suggested picking Jackson over Bill Rancic, the other remaining contestant and a white man. After a debate over Jackson’s performance on the show, Pruitt writes, Trump winced before asking if America would accept a Black man winning, referring to Jackson by the racist slur.

Pruitt said he was coming forward now because his non-disclosure agreement — which carried a possible $5 million fine if violated — expired this year. He told the AP that he recalled all quotes in his article to the best of his ability and that the conversation was recorded.

“He’s about to run for a second term as president of the United States and I heard him use a term that should have and would have abolished him from politics forever had more people heard about it,” Pruitt said. “Anyone who is capable of using it shouldn’t be leading the country.”

The Trump campaign denied Pruitt’s claim that Trump used the slur. “Prove it,” wrote Cheung, the campaign spokesperson, on the X platform, adding that Biden’s allies were “peddling” the story “because Biden is hemorrhaging support from Black Americans.” The Democratic president has seen his support among Black voters fall sharply since taking office.

In 2005, a year after Pruitt claims Trump used the slur, the former president proposed a “Blacks” versus “whites” version of “The Apprentice” on “The Howard Stern Show,” telling listeners he was considering creating an episode pitting “nine Blacks against nine whites, all highly educated, very smart, strong, beautiful people.”

In an interview, Jackson said Trump never said the slur to his face. But he said Pruitt’s account and the conversation about an alleged Trump recording spotlighted the nation’s inability to resolve broader questions of what kind of speech voters will tolerate in 2024.

“The bigger problem for me is none of this really matters because America is entirely comfortable with both overt and covert racism. And whether there is a smoking gun that says Trump called me an N-word and a tape appears tomorrow, what will that change? How will that make a difference?” said Jackson, president of his own brand marketing, diversity and inclusion consulting firm.

POLITICAL PRESSURE

Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, argues Biden’s immigration and economic policies have deprived Black communities of jobs and resources. He and his allies have suggested he can cut into Biden’s margins with Black voters, long a core Democratic constituency.

He has also sought to get a boost from his criminal charges and suggested in February to a mostly Black audience that African Americans related to him more because he had been indicted.

Biden has pointed to several measures benefitting Black Americans, including more funding for historically Black colleges and universities, forgiveness of federal student loan debt and pardons for federal possession of marijuana charges. His campaign has also sought to draw attention to Trump’s past.

On Monday, Biden’s campaign posted a TikTok video featuring coverage of Pruitt’s allegations, as well as the affirmation of Omarosa Manigault Newman, who went from a show contestant to White House aide to a Trump critic, that she had heard a tape of Trump using the slur.

“Donald Trump is exactly who we all knew he was — a lifelong racist,” a woman says in the TikTok. “Black voters kicked Donald Trump out of the White House in 2020, and we’re going to do it again this November.”

Marshawn Evans Daniels, who was one of two Black contestants competing on the fourth season of “The Apprentice,” said she never heard Trump use racist language on set.

“‘The Apprentice’ was a baptism in the highest levels of business and I was always praised,” said Evans Daniels, an attorney, author and consultant. “I never had a negative experience but that doesn’t usually happen when you are there in the room.”

That same season, winner Randal Pinkett was rewarded with a job working for Trump. But Pinkett, who is also Black, said Trump treated him differently than other previous winners and asked him to share his title with a white contestant.

“If I give Donald the benefit of the doubt, then what he did to me was racially insensitive,” said Pinkett, now a CEO of an international consulting firm who has also previously criticized Trump. “If I do not give him the benefit of doubt, which I do not, it was racist. And it therefore does not surprise me that he would say the N-word.”

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Burke reported from San Francisco and Kinnard reported from Columbia, South Carolina.

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Contact the AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.

By GARANCE BURKE and MEG KINNARD
Associated Press

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