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The gay author of the smash book Apprentice in Wonderland on the dangers and deficiencies of Donald Trump

The gay author of the smash book Apprentice in Wonderland on the dangers and deficiencies of Donald Trump

Donald Trump Apprentice NBC red carpet youre fired face book cover apprentice in wonderland author Ramin Setoodeh
Desiree Navarro/WireImage; Harper Collins; Alexi Lubomirski

Ramin Setoodeh met with Trump six times and reveals his faulty memory, obsession with himself and ratings, his one reference to Melania, and the danger of underestimating his likability, charm, and intelligence.

Ramin Setoodeh is the co-editor in chief of Variety; however, as readers of The Advocate, you may be familiar with him as was one of our Advocates of the Year for 2023 as well as one of the Out100 in 2023 for our sibling publication Out.

Now Setoodeh is arguably the person of the hour as the author of the explosive new book, Apprentice in Wonderland, which chronicles Donald Trump’s years as a reality TV star on The Apprentice. The book was released Tuesday and has created a media firestorm. Setoodeh had unprecedented access to Trump, interviewing him six times at his office in Trump Tower as well as at Mar-a-Lago.

“He was really excited to talk to me, because, as my role as the editor in chief of Variety, he was happy to talk to me as an entertainment journalist,” Setoodeh told me during a long conversation Friday.

This wasn’t the first time Setoodeh had talked to Trump; in fact, as a budding reporter for Newsweek in New York, he established a connection with Trump while covering The Apprentice in its early years.

“I started writing about the show and Donald Trump,” he explained. “The thing about Donald Trump was that he would always get on the phone with any reporter. So as a young reporter, I could always call his office. I would call his secretary, Norma, and she would put me through directly to him. There was no publicist. There was no vetting. He often didn't even know I was from Newsweek.”

Trump was always available because he loved talking to the press, Setoodeh said. “I remember during his first term, I would often wonder if he had changed at all, because I felt like I had a pretty good sense of who he was when he was the host of The Apprentice.”

Setoodeh got his answer when he returned to Trump Tower after his presidency to interview him for the book. “When we started talking, it was very clear to me that he hadn't changed. He was still the reality star, and he was conducting business as president of the United States as a reality star.”

And that’s the danger that Setoodeh wants Americans to be aware of.

“I’m really grateful that it's generated the amount of dialogue about who Trump is, because I think that's what's different about this book than all the other Trump books,” he points out. “It really does look at who he was before he became president and how he became president and how he used reality TV to convince millions of Americans that he was qualified for the most powerful job as a leader of the free world.”

What follows is a no-holds-barred interview with Setoodeh who reveals Trump’s shockingly faulty memory, his obsession with himself and his ratings, his one reference to Melania, and the hidden danger of underestimating his likability, charm, and intelligence.

The Advocate: You point out that Trump was a reality TV star, and he used that experience to become president. You’ve been covering entertainment your whole career. If not Trump, then it would have been another reality star. Is that what you think?

Ramin Setoodeh: Yes, I think if Donald Trump had not become the first reality TV president, someone else would have, because there's a convergence in our culture of politics and entertainment. For whatever reason, because of cultural trends and the way in which we regard celebrity as a society and the interest we have in entertainment. Also, the way in which politics are being covered as if it was a form of entertainment. So therefore, I do think it was probably inevitable for a reality star to become president.

But Trump is different, perhaps because he’s been using and manipulating the media his entire life and living in the fishbowl of New York City for so long. It’s hard to think of someone like Lisa Vanderpump becoming president.

What is so important, I think, about the dialogue around this book is that Donald Trump is using the media as a reality star. He is looking at the tropes of reality TV. He knows how to engage people. He knows how to hold their attention, and it is a force that the Democrats will need to be aware of as we're heading into the election, because he is not a traditional politician.

Based on your assessment, we shouldn’t be reading and reacting to Trump as a politician?

The mistake the Clinton campaign made in 2016 is that they tried to campaign against him like a traditional politician. And there were, of course, lots of different forces at play back then, and a lot of it was due to sexism. But in this current climate, there needs to be an awareness of what Donald Trump is doing and who he is.

Does that would mean not creating rebuttals to Trump’s bizarre behavior or comments as legitimate policy or traditional political arguments?

There does need to be a dialogue about how he is a reality star and when he says things he doesn't really mean. A lot of what he says is performance art, and there still isn't enough awareness about that from political reporters who still cover him as if he's a traditional politician.

How would you suggest the campaign be waged against him?

You campaign against him by turning everything on its side, because this book is about how Donald Trump distorts reality, right? And he distorts the truth, and he confuses what he learned on a reality TV show for what it's like living in the real world. So there does need to be an awareness that he is a reality star. He's an actor playing a part, and I think that is the way you have to campaign against him.

I think, based on what I’ve seen a lot of times, that so many people try to fact-check him, which is wrong because it’s almost like he’s setting a trap for people to waste their time fact-checking nonsense.

That's the other thing that's really important that people need to understand. A lot of journalists go into interviews with Donald Trump and try to fact-check him in real time. Having spent hours with him, he cascades from one story into the next, into the next, into next, It's like being on a roller coaster. You cannot keep up with the speed in which he's talking because he talks very fast, and he's very entertaining in his stories.

Those stories are probably the only thing he’s good at espousing, so why do you fact-check distorted stories from, to use an old analogy, a traveling medicine show?

You have to be able to defuse that by looking at it through the lens of he's a showman, he's not a politician, he's not interested in legislation, he's not interested in policy, he's not interested in governing. And I think if you can explain that to the American public, you can unlock the skeleton key that has made Donald Trump be the front-runner and the Republican nominee.

My last corporate job was with the media ratings company Nielsen, so I got a kick out of hearing your comments about his obsession with ratings.

For one week in 2004, The Apprentice was number 1, and he has framed both in his office in Trump Tower and at Mar-a-Lago a copy of that particular week’s ratings. And there are two scenes in my book where we go and we both inspect the ratings, and he talks about how huge he was and how famous he was and how many people watched him.

It validates, to him, that people like him.

Yes, that explains who Donald Trump is. He is driven by ratings. He is driven by numbers. He was taught by Jeff Zucker at NBC to always try to get the highest rating possible. And so when he looks at the polls, and when he sees that people approve of him, it's the thing that gives him the biggest boost. It's the thing that makes him the happiest, more than anything else in his life. Polls to him are an extension of ratings, and that is why he's so fixated on things like crowd size.

During all the time you spent with him, did he ever ask you any questions about you? I think I know the answer…

Donald Trump likes to be the center of attention, and the conversations were always about him.

Do you think he had any idea that this book might be damaging? Or was he just so lost in his own sense of reality — pun intended?

Donald Trump is flattered that people are writing books about him, and I don't think he truly cares if the books are good or bad. Back to the previous question, I think he just wants to be the center of conversation, I really do. And I think that there's a quality to a lot of reality stars that if people are talking about you in any way, then it’s a good thing.

There is no bad press for Donald Trump.

Right. He looks at it that if the press is covering Trump, that means that they're not covering Biden. And so he's at the center of the conversation, and that drives his interest in ratings and numbers, and he thinks in his head that leads to votes.

I guess the biggest thing that surprised you was his faulty memory. Would that be true?

He didn't remember me between our first and second conversation, and he wasn't doing a lot of press during this time. This was in the summer of 2021.

Was the first interview boring or uneventful? Why wouldn’t he remember you?

No, he was so in the moment at the first interview that we did together, in fact, I had taken a mask to wear, and I left it on the chair because he wasn't wearing a mask. So I didn't wear a mask because it was too hard to interview him with a mask on. And so when I went back to get my mask at the end, I heard him telling Jason Miller how wonderful that interview was and how he wished all interviews were like that. So our first conversation really was something that should have been memorable to him, because we spent a lot of time together. We had a very detailed conversation.

And then you went back to Trump Tower…

And then when I returned to Trump Tower a few months later, he had a blank expression on his face and didn't remember the conversation at all. So there are short-term memory issues. He has a much clearer memory of hosting The Apprentice than he does of recent events.

What about Melania? Did he ever talk about her?

He did. He mentioned Melania on the day that we watched the clips from The Apprentice together. There's an episode of Celebrity Apprentice where Dennis Rodman is supposed to help sell Melania's fragrance line, and Dennis's team misspells Melania's name on the presentation. And in the clip that I showed, Melania talks about how her name's not spelled correctly, and Donald Trump laughs.

Did he laugh in the clip or in the room with you?

In the room. Donald Trump starts laughing, and he was really amused by how his wife handled that situation. And then he asked me if I could give him that clip so he could show it to Melania. That was the only time he brought her up. But it was again through the prism and through the lens of reality TV.

So many people who have worked with Trump have called him stupid, like former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who famously called him a “moron.” And his former Chief of Staff John Kelly who called him an “idiot.” Would you characterize him as stupid, and before you answer, I always tell people you’re not elected president of the United States or get the Republican nomination again after such a losing track record if you’re stupid.

I agree. I don't think Donald Trump is stupid. I think that Donald Trump is crazy like a fox. I think he knows what he's doing, and I think he knows how to manipulate the media to get people to talk about him and pay attention to him.

He's working on a very high level, and a lot of it is performance art. A lot of it is performative. A lot of it is acting for the base and playing a character that he knows the right wing of the Republican Party really loves.

Smart in a different way that’s probably unrelatable to us?

It’s relatable. I talked to the contestants from The Apprentice, and one of the things that they were uniformly clear about was that he’s very smart, he's very charismatic, and he's very good in a room. He makes people like him. I liked him when I was in the room with him, and I know maybe I'm not supposed to say that, because, you know, on the left people are like, so quick to like talk about him in terms that are a villain, but I liked him. I like spending time with him because it's entertaining, and that's the key to Donald Trump. He is an entertaining person, and that is how he gets people to engage with him and vote for him. But this book is a truthful examination of who he is, and so I don't think it would be fair for me to talk to you and say that Donald Trump is stupid.

And I think it would be dangerously wrong if his competition underestimated him and treated him like he’s stupid.

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John Casey

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.