Trump and Omarosa Are Kindred Spirits

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Donald Trump and I used to talk a lot about Omarosa Manigault Newman. The future president was fascinated by her. He was fascinated by her self-absorption and nastiness, fascinated by her fleeting star power and fascinated by the fact that she was publicly recognizable by her first name alone, sort of like Prince or Madonna.

Except, of course, Omarosa wasn’t Prince or Madonna. This was back in 2004 and 2005 and Omarosa was a contestant on “The Apprentice,” a reality TV show that was, briefly, an incandescent hit. She wasn’t a musical genius, like Prince, or an abiding cultural force, like Madonna. Her celebrity was spun from much more gossamer stuff.

Viewers gravitated toward Omarosa because, on a show that exploited a “Lord of the Flies” scenario to see how badly an average group of men and women wanted to please Trump, she could behave so horrifically that it reassured folks that they probably wouldn’t be — couldn't be — that monstrous themselves. Heh, heh, heh. Of course, they could. Trump has always unleashed demons in people around him, even in orbits as cartoonish as “The Apprentice” and the Trump Organization. It made for boffo TV.

The producers of “The Apprentice” originally thought that the show’s dog-eat-dog world would be its main attraction and that Trump’s now famous boardroom firings would just be icing on the cake. They soon discovered that Trump decapitating people with his signature phrase — “You’re fired!” — and most of the other scenes he inhabited were what gave this ensemble act its real juice.

Nevertheless, the contestants mattered and in the show’s first season in 2004 Omarosa owned her own peculiar space. Viewers loved hating her. “I’m going to crush my competition and I’m going to enjoy doing it,” she declared on the show. She played on a faux corporate battlefield where teams had unintentionally dopey names like “Protégé” and “Versacorp,” but nobody cared about the teams. They cared about the individuals, and Omarosa delivered.

A tall, forceful black woman inhabiting a set meant to evoke the bleached, predictable environs of Corporate America, she dispensed with decorum and bluntly told people off. She often belittled her own teammates when strategy was debated. If she decided she wasn’t up for a particular challenge she found a way to dodge it. In one episode, a chunk of building plaster bounced off of her head at a construction site, and she said she had a concussion, thereby excusing herself from that episode’s competition. (The hospital later diagnosed her as A-OK.)

She was scheming, deceitful, ruthless and unapologetic, and Trump was mesmerized.

I had covered Trump occasionally for The New York Times back then and was working on a biography of him called “TrumpNation.” (Trump unsuccessfully sued me for libel over parts of the book about his business record and wealth that he said damaged his reputation.)

Trump told me that he initially had been worried that some of “The Apprentice” contestants lacked star power. Omarosa changed his mind.

“I didn't think she had it. But she was great casting,” he told me. “We didn't know she was the Wicked Witch until the audience found she was the Wicked Witch. We had an idea but you never know how it is going to be picked up.”

As he pondered Omarosa’s newfound celebrity he also pondered his own. Worried about what would become of him if and when NBC canceled “The Apprentice,” he sought advice about how best to secure his stardom. He told me he rang up Lorne Michaels, the producer of “Saturday Night Live,” for counseling.

“Which is bigger, a television star or a movie star?” he asked.

“A television star,” Michaels replied. “Because you are on in front of 30 million people, every week, virtually every week.”

All of this gave Trump a newfound appreciation of Omarosa.

“I would have never thought that Omarosa was a star,” he told me. “I didn't think she was that attractive. I didn't think she was anything. And she became a star.”

Trump also grew weary of her. When Omarosa bungled her final task (shopping some art) toward the end of the first season, Trump canned her. His own star was shining brightly and he didn’t need Omarosa’s added glare. 

After she was fired and had no chance of winning, Omarosa went on TV to accuse another contestant of using the “N-word” when speaking to her. She said the racial slur had been edited out of the show, which NBC disputed.

That didn’t get in the way of the pair collaborating again. She joined “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2008 and in 2010 worked with Trump to produce a dating show called “The Ultimate Merger.” In 2013 she appeared on “All-Star Celebrity Apprentice.”

Omarosa then campaigned with Trump during his presidential bid. He later brought her into the White House in a nebulous role that included advising on his transition and working on public relations. By most accounts, she treated her White House stay the same way she handled “The Apprentice” competition full speed ahead, detractors be damned. She was fired after about 10 months, at the end of 2017.

She now has a new book, aptly titled “Unhinged,” in which she disparages Trump and claims she knows about the existence of a tape in which he uses the “N-word.” (This is disputed.) In a National Public Radio interview last week, she went beyond that and contradicted herself by saying she had heard the tape herself.

Trump, finding time to ignore a financial crisis in Turkey and the fate of migrant children his team has separated from their parents at the southern U.S. border, unleashed his Twitter feed on Omarosa this morning:

That last one looked staff-written to me, but what do I know? About 90 minutes after posting those tweets, he weighed in with a somber coda:

Trump tweets relentlessly when he feels cornered or obsessed, and he is currently obsessed with Omarosa. She is just as craven and self-absorbed as he is, and betrayal by a kindred spirit has never sat well with him. So a book with a title that evokes one of the president’s core shortcomings, and dishes about his all too familiar racism, holds his attention even if the author’s credibility might not warrant it.

Trump’s response is also evidence that the man elected in part because of the managerial and business prowess he demonstrated on “The Apprentice” can’t get his country’s priorities in order. Expect him to wallow in moments like this for years to come.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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