In the recently released Netflix documentary The Confidence Man, two creators of The Apprentice discuss creating the “character” of Donald Trump as a billionaire business tycoon.
“What we did, that was a scam,” says producer Bill Pruitt. “That was an entertainment.”
Pruitt describes Trump’s real office within New York’s Trump Tower as dated, so the show built the boardroom where Trump uttered the now famous line “You’re Fired!” The famous boardroom was a set based on the classy, high-powered office portrayed in the movie Network.
“If you walked around Trump’s actual office in Trump Tower you’d see the wood’s chipped, and what’s that smell?” says Pruitt in the film. “It wasn’t the empire we were going to have to sell to people. We needed to gussy it up a bit. And we did.”
The Confidence Man, directed by Fisher Stevens (Bright Lights), is the final episode of the Alex Gibney-created docuseries Dirty Money. It contends that Trump the tycoon is really a myth created by the infamous self-promoter, his visibility spread wide with continued mentions in articles, TV commercials and network interviews.
But Trump declined to partake in this project. In a statement from the series’ producers, “the producers reached out to The White House last summer, as recommended by the SVP of the Trump Organization, inviting President Trump to participate and allow him to tell his own story for the episode. The White House never responded to their request.”
The New York gossip columnist AJ Benza recalls that Trump gave him dirt on the Manhattan nightlife scene in exchange for labeling him a billionaire.
“He wanted to be paid back in a particular way, regardless of what you mentioned,” says Benza in the film. “He never really cared as long as you said the word ‘billionaire.’ “
The reality, the film contends, is that by the early 1990s, The Trump Organization was facing over $3 billion of debt and its three Atlantic City casinos went bankrupt; in the following years leading to The Apprentice, Trump “was a man in trouble.”
“We wanted to show people that Donald Trump is not a good businessman when it comes to building a company and managing a company,” Stevens tells PEOPLE, “and I wanted to say how how scary it is that he is running the country because he doesn’t do due diligence on any of his deals.”
Timothy O’Brien, a Trump biographer, says in the film that his 2005 book, TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald, claimed that Trump was worth between $150 million to $250 million, far from being a billionaire. (Trump sued O’Brien a decade ago for libel, and lost.)
When banks were hesitant to loan Trump money due to multiple bank defaults and bankruptcies, The Confidence Man tells how Trump made licensing deals that put his name on a wide assortment of properties, giving the impression that he was king of a vast empire. On this premise he created the now-defunct Trump University, which in 2016 settled a $25 million fraud case.
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“Trump’s brilliance to me is that he has incredible charisma,” Stevens tells PEOPLE. “He is a TV star and knows how to build his brand.”
And that brand, of course, led to his role on The Apprentice, as a real estate “billionaire” — and described by the show’s initial contestants as “practically a god.”
“The Apprentice overnight repositioned him in the American imagination as the embodiment of deal making savvy, capable entrepreneur, and business success,” says O’Brien.
At the time, contends the film, few knew just how much Trump desperately needed the show. In The Confidence Man, Apprentice supervising editor Jonathan Braun asks Pruitt if Trump treated the first season as a joke.
Says Pruitt: “It was one of his many things that day to save his empire.”
“Without The Apprentice, he would never be president, and using reality television as a platform [improved] his image,” Stevens tells PEOPLE. “But that was not who he really is. He is a character, like on a TV show.”
As Braun says in the film, “We didn’t think that so many people would look at it and go, ‘That’s real, this guy’s amazing.’ “