Last year Donald Trump ended his run of 14 seasons as the cocksure boss on The Apprentice to prepare for his improbable White House bid. Today, as the US president-elect, he is assembling his administration in a way that suggests a new show is in the offing: The Appointee.
The billionaire showman has brought the spectacle of reality television to the task of choosing his top political appointees, insisting that jobseekers bare their interest publicly by parading past the cameras at Trump Tower in Manhattan and his New Jersey golf club.
It has all the ingredients of a gripping show: suspense, mystery, and surprise. With a roster of visitors including Ted Cruz, his former rival, Mitt Romney, his former critic, and Chris Christie, his recently demoted ally, the potential for peace deals, grudge wielding and blow ups is huge.
Entertainment has long rivalled property development as Mr Trump’s main vocation. He used The Apprentice on NBC to build his persona as a masterful businessman, then turned that into the core of his appeal to many voters. His fixation with ratings is undisguised, both his own and those of shows he says have wronged him on CNN and MSNBC.
As active as ever on Twitter, he is stoking interest in who will win and lose in the cabinet race by firing off tweets to his 16m followers, who are reminded that he is the circus ringmaster. “Very organised process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions,” he tweeted. “I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!”
He wants to signal to the world that he’s the king and force others to perform before his throne
His approach is the polar opposite to what previous presidents-elect have done. Discretion is usually paramount for interviews with candidates for roles such as Treasury secretary and secretary of state. The watchwords for presidential appointments are traditionally speed, safety and stability. Cliffhangers are to be avoided, not orchestrated.
But the real estate tycoon, for the umpteenth time, is taking a wrecking ball to convention. “You can take the president-elect off the reality television show, but you can’t take the reality television show out of the president-elect,” says Pete Wehner, a former speech writer for President George W Bush and vocal critic of Mr Trump.
“Mr Trump thrives on creating suspense and unpredictability. He views the world as his stage and himself as the main star,” he says. “He appears to want to force people to audition for their jobs in public, not in private, and prove he’s in charge, the dominant player, the alpha male. He wants to signal to the world that he’s the king and force others to perform before his throne.”
Whether job seekers arrive via Trump Tower’s golden elevator or the wooden doors of the Trump National clubhouse in Bedminster, New Jersey, they have been forced to confront one truth of reality television: the price of glory is the risk of public humiliation.
This week those who made good included Senator Jeff Sessions, a conservative hardliner on immigration who the president-elect wants to be attorney-general; Nikki Haley, the South Carolina governor chosen as ambassador to the UN; and Wilbur Ross, the veteran investor who is expected to be nominated as commerce secretary.
Yet to be revealed is whether there will be disappointment for Mr Romney, who denounced Mr Trump as a “fraud” earlier this year. As he left the golf club he barely acknowledged the secretary of state job he had come to discuss. Also in limbo is Mr Cruz, who called Mr Trump a “pathological liar” during their primary battle. After several hours at Trump Tower he said: “I’m eager to work with the new president in whatever capacity I can have the greatest impact.”
The ambitions of others were more naked. Scott Brown, a former senator, emerged from the gilded elevator and made a beeline for the press to tell them he had spoken to Mr Trump about the job of secretary of veterans affairs. “I think I’m the best person,” he declared.
Sarah Bernard, a former White House director of online engagement who is now a partner at BoBCat, a production company that makes unscripted programming, said: “[Mr Trump] has produced a narrative for himself and his cabinet and every choice he makes could potentially please a viewer or, in this case, a citizen.” As in the best reality television, she said: “He is producing a storyline.”
Mr Trump’s family is another part of the daily drama, with his children acting as a Kardashian-style cast who have their own colourful subplots. Mr Trump this week told the New York Times his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a property mogul, could help broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Donald Trump Jr, his eldest son, raised eyebrows when the Wall Street Journal reported that in October he attended a Paris conference on ending the Syrian civil war whose hosts were pro-Russian.
Reality television needs its emotional turning points and Mr Trump has extracted plenty from Mr Christie, the New Jersey governor, who went from acerbic rival to Trump cheerleader to head of his transition team to chastening demotion.
Now he is back again, joining the intrigue of The Appointee by visiting Mr Trump on Sunday. Whether he and others are ultimately told “You’re fired”, the catchphrase Mr Trump used to dismiss contestants on The Apprentice, they will have served him well already by boosting his ratings.