As he makes a splashy and controversial start to explore running for president, Donald Trump has been compared to P.T. Barnum. But is the showman really ready to trade in the boardroom on NBC's Celebrity Apprentice— in his words, "a ratings and demographic phenomenon" — for the Oval Office?
We'll find out this month, Trump tells TV Guide Magazine. The mogul, who's been testing the campaign waters with fiery, at times profanity-laced speeches in several states, will reportedly make an announcement about the announcement on the May 22 Celebrity Apprentice finale. "I'm doing it quickly to be fair to NBC, who has been a terrific partner, and to the people who want to see me run," says Trump. "In my own mind, I have made a decision already," he says, adding that as president, he "would make this nation a great and rich nation again." Trump is unapologetic about his well-documented record of flip-flopping on such issues as abortion rights, health care and raising taxes on the wealthy. "I've changed my thinking on some matters, as has every other candidate that ever ran for office," he says.
Those who know him well say it's a mistake to underestimate Trump's intelligence and his ability to connect with the American people. "He's struck a chord," say one insider, adding that, at the very least, Trump will get the attention he wants for his ideas. His attacks on Barack Obama's citizenship and education have so far not hurt Trump with Republicans; he's polling high among putative candidates. And though the list of liberal entertainment types calling him out is growing — David Letterman most recently joined the ranks of Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart and Robert De Niro — ratings are up from the last Celebrity Apprentice, with an average of more than 8 million viewers.
The future of the NBC show could be compromised if Trump runs. While the candidate would have to quit his on-air role, media analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Television Group believes his kids could take over the boardroom, "so long as they don't sit there wearing trump for president buttons." But Trump believes there could be an "equal time" conflict if daughter Ivanka and son Donald Jr. remain on the show. The format could do just fine without the boardroom boss, Carroll adds: "People tune in to see if NeNe Leakes will strangle Star Jones." NBC won't comment on the show's future, but Trump could conceivably announce, run, drop out and still make a March 2012 premiere. (Celebrity Apprentice began in March this year.) Even if the hiatus is longer, "I don't think there would be any erosion when and if Trump returns," predicts analyst Brad Adgate of Horizon Media. "He'll have been in the public eye and would probably bring a boost in ratings."
NBC Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd thinks Trump will run, but just for a few months. "He's a summer fill-in show," Todd says. "It's almost as if Trump looked at what Sarah Palin pulled off and said, 'If she can create this amazing brand, I've got 10 times her media savvy!' I suspect he'll get out of the race before he has to file financial forms, which is [120 days from declaring] for an active candidate." Adds ABC Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper, "I don't think Trump can separate the things he contemplates doing that will bring him media attention and his goals. It's all part of the circus." Todd agrees: "If you have an interesting circus, people will pay to see it." Trump might like the example of Barnum, whose flamboyant publicity stunts and supposed declaration, "There's a sucker born every minute," didn't hurt his popularity. After he emerged from bankruptcy, Barnum became a state legislator and mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Additional reporting by Rob Moynihan