Mythmakers: The Men Who Created Donald J. Trump

Mark Burnett, Jeff Zucker, and the Trustwashing of a Fake President

FOR FOUR YEARS NOW, the two individuals arguably most responsible for Donald John Trump winning the White House have managed to steer clear of the spotlight. We know all about the impact Vladimir Putin and Julian Assange, Mark Zuckerberg and Rupert Murdoch, James Comey and the New York Times, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica had on the 2016 election. But it was Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, and Mark Burnett, the producer of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, who created the “Donald J. Trump, Successful Businessman” that ran for president. They were Professor Henry Higgins, and Trump, Eliza Doolittle.

This past week, at long last, both of these Dr. Frankensteins are in the news. Zucker is reportedly leaving CNN. Burnett, meanwhile, has reportedly been a disaster as head of MGM—in other words, his tenure there has not exactly been touched by an angel—and his charges are starting to blab. As Kim Masters puts it in her Hollywood Reporter hit piece, “much like the president with whom he is so closely associated, [Burnett is] an agent of chaos.” Hopefully this is a harbinger of their precipitous fall from grace, although I’m not holding my breath.

Zucker, Burnett, and Trump have been friendly for years. In 2004, Donald was broke, and desperate for a steady paycheck. Burnett—who’d already inflicted The Survivor upon the world, warranting his doom—cooked up the idea of a “reality” show featuring Trump as a rich, successful titan of industry. And Zucker, who was then president of NBC Entertainment, greenlighted the project.

Never mind that Trump was a serial bankrupt who had pissed away his $400 million inheritance. Never mind that he was neither self-made, nor a billionaire, nor a titan of industry. Never mind that his real estate company was a small family business with something like a dozen employees. Never mind that the furniture in his offices was shabby and worn. Never mind that he lacked the real-life courage to say to an underperforming employee, “You’re fired.” Zucker signed the checks, Burnett created the fantasy, and Trump played a reasonable facsimile of what a future “businessman president” might look like. It was a trust-wash. And given Burnett’s hard-on for making a reality show about Vladimir Putin, it’s hard to imagine that stage-managing a viable presidential candidate wasn’t, on some level, the intention.

Once their Frankenstein monster was unleashed on the Republican primaries in 2015, both Burnett and Zucker did everything in their ample power to help their creation’s campaign. For Burnett, that meant silencing employees who’d worked on The Apprentice—folks who’d seen Trump up close for years and knew what a piece of shit he really was. It meant NDAs. It meant threats of litigation, and fears of blacklisting. It also meant burying tapes of Trump behaving badly deep in the vault. And it meant, this past summer, producing the poisoned production of Evita that was the Republican National Convention.

For Zucker, by 2016 the head of CNN News, it meant giving Trump as much free airtime as he could get away with. It meant putting lickspittles like Jeffrey Lord (remember that sniveling asshole?) and Corey Lewandowski and Rick Santorum on TV. It meant both-sidesing to death every Trump assault on democracy. It meant normalizing a Fascist. In at least one case, it meant shutting down a story, and blacklisting the messenger. “Clinton News Network,” the rightwing talking heads yowled, but in actuality, the head guy at CNN was, (allegedly) in Trump’s own words, “in my pocket.” Talk about controlled opposition!

The objective, it seems to me, was not just to help Trump win, or make it easier for him when he got to Washington. No, the prime directive was to preserve the myth they’d spent decades creating. The mythical Trump doesn’t do drugs, soil adult diapers, sexually harass women, or employ racial epithets on the regular. So Mark Burnett made all that go away. The mythical Trump is a successful billionaire who self-funded his own campaign, who did not need or want his own super PAC. So Jeff Zucker made all that go away.

We first heard about the Trump Apprentice dirt from Noel Casler, a 25-year veteran live TV stage handler who spent six seasons working on Celebrity Apprentice. Because he specialized in difficult talent, he wound up working for Ivanka Trump. “Mark Burnett helped create the Trump we now see,” he told me in an interview on May 1. “He’s one of his staunchest supporters and allies, and was in the room for many a racist tirade from Trump’s mouth that was recorded by the audio crew on that show.”

That interview was, I believe, the first in-depth Q&A that Casler had given. He’d dropped bombshells on Twitter for years, but this was the first time he went on record like this. He had to exercise caution. “During the 2016 campaign, Mark Burnett threatened to sue anyone who had worked on the Apprentice crew,” he told me. “This caused many of my colleagues to fall silent. (They had been speaking out on Facebook—including former directors of the show— and I think word got back to him.) I told the HRC campaign what I knew, and at their behest, I told People Magazine.”

But his colleagues were too scared of the consequences. In 2016, risk outweighed reward. As he told me in our second interview:

The general consensus was that Trump wasn’t going to win anyway, so why damage your career. I kinda believed that as well, and I think the HRC camp felt the same. A lot of my colleagues were with HRC Election Night at the Javits Center—it was going to be a big party and live show. I remember getting texts from backstage with like Lady Gaga or Katy Perry slumped in a chair crying—everyone was in shock. I wish I had done more, previous to that night. That’s when I walked away from live TV and became a stand-up comedian, to get my info out to a broader public forum. Just to kind of let people know who they were actually dealing with. I had realized The Apprentice really gave much of America a truly false sense of how Trump was a person.  

People ran a short piece, but for the most part, the media ignored Noel Casler. This is telling, because Noel is great TV—warm, engaging, funny, smart, easy on the eyes—and, also, ratings gold. That first PREVAIL interview is far and away the most read piece on this site, with three quarters of a million pageviews. Look at the views on the Stuttering John Podcast when he’s the guest, compared with the other guests. We’re supposed to believe no one would tune in for a 60 Minutes interview with him?

Did the media shy away because no one else was willing to corroborate his claims on the record? Here’s the thing: For four years now, crucially, Casler’s story has not changed. He’s been open about how he got the job, what he did, and what he witnessed and heard: drug abuse, incontinence, sexual harassment, bizarre interactions with Ivanka, racism. Holly Robinson Peete this week confirmed that, yes, Trump really did call her the n-word, just as Casler has been alleging since 2016. I ask: Was the media being careful with Noel Casler? Or were they being intimidated by Mark Burnett? Burnett is not just a successful producer, after all, who now runs MGM—he’s a former British Army paratrooper who fought in the Falklands.

At CNN, meanwhile, Jeff Zucker shut down Cheri Jacobus. Like Casler, Jacobus has been shouting from the rooftops for five years about Donald John Trump. Like Casler, she has been consistent. I’ve read her pieces about it, I’ve interviewed her about what happened, I’ve listened to podcasts where she retells the story, and it never changes.

Short version: In late 2015, the Trump campaign wanted to bring her on. This made sense, because on the surface, Cheri Jacobus was exactly what Trump sought: smart, good on TV, experienced, and also, attractive. But after meeting the loutish Corey Lewandowski, then the campaign chair, she declined. At that meeting, she found out that, contrary to what he was saying on the stump, Trump had a super PAC. As she told me, in one of the first PREVAIL interviews:

When the Washington Post reported on the Trump super PAC in October 2015, Trump and Lewandowski lied and said they had nothing to do with it and knew nothing about it. In fact, Corey told me all about the super PAC in our meetings, and even was asking someone (while in my presence) to check on the status of the paperwork. (At the time I was a bit surprised he was being that reckless, even to the point of wondering if the FEC laws had changed and I had somehow missed it.) 

On an appearance on FOX, on which network she’d appeared countless times, after the Washington Post broke the story about the super PAC, she confirmed it. Bedlam ensued. “I was immediately canceled on and blacklisted by FOX,” she told me. “Bill O’Reilly hopped on Gretchen Carlson’s show—midday—to lie for Trump and said Trump had no super PAC.”

Later, after Trump subsequently tweeted lies about her—I know, Trump tweeting lies; hard to imagine, right?—Jacobus was not invited back to CNN. “They treated his lies as true and decided I was no longer credible as a political pundit—and had a ‘conflict,’ as I was later told.” Not only that, but the transcript of her appearance, she was told by reporters, was scrubbed from the CNN archives.

Oh, and she dropped this nugget:

Lewandowski, in an attempt to impress me so I’d work for the campaign, bragged that Trump was great friends with Roger Ailes and Jeff Zucker and had both of them “in his pocket.” (At that time I was not aware or was not remembering that CNN chief Jeff Zucker and Trump were best friends and that Zucker had greenlit The Apprentice for Trump when he was head of Entertainment at NBC). I didn’t believe him at the time, but by February, I knew he was telling the truth on that point.

Like Mark Burnett, Jeff Zucker was safeguarding the mythical “Donald J. Trump” he helped create.

As we transition from Trumpist chaos and graft to Bidenian order and stability, we should recall those patriots who, at great personal risk, spoke out to defend our country—at a moment when most people still believed Trump was a “successful businessman” who “tells it like it is” and would “drain the swamp” and “make America great again.” Noel Casler and Cheri Jacobus, I salute you.

Likewise, let us never forget the mendacious men who happily sacrificed our national security, our public health, and, almost, our very republic, to save their ugly orange monster, preserve the myth they created, and make a few dollars more. It is unlikely that Mark Burnett or Jeff Zucker will suffer any real consequences for their complicity. They are too powerful, and too far removed from the actual crimes. They won’t be indicted. They will continue to find lucrative work.

But we know what they did, and a traitor is a traitor forever.