For the fourth season of “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump searched for a gimmick to bolster ratings. His idea was simple if explosive — pit an all-white team against an all-black team.
“Do you like it?” he asked, previewing the concept on Howard Stern’s radio show in April 2005.
“Yes,” Stern said.
“Do you like it?” Trump asked Robin Quivers, the African-American cohost.
“Well,” she said, “I think you’re going to have a riot.”
That gave Trump no pause. “It would be the highest-rated show on television,” he exulted.
Long before he ignited a firestorm by telling four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to their home countries, even though three were born in the United States and all are citizens, Trump sought to pit Americans against one another along racial lines.
Over decades in business, entertainment, and now politics, Trump has approached America’s racial, ethnic, and religious divisions opportunistically, not as the nation’s wounds to be healed but as openings to achieve his goals, whether they be ratings, fame, money, or power, without regard for adverse consequences.
He was accused by government investigators in the 1970s of refusing to rent apartments to black tenants (he denied it but settled the case) and made a name for himself in the 1980s championing the death penalty for five black and Hispanic rape suspects who were later exonerated. He threatened to sell his Mar-a-Lago estate to the Unification Church in 1991 and unleash “thousands of Moonies” if city officials in Palm Beach, Fla., did not allow him to carve up his property.
Taking on competitors of his Atlantic City casinos, he questioned whether rival owners were really Native Americans entitled to federal recognition — then later teamed up with another tribe when there was money to be made. With his eye on the White House, he opened a yearslong drive to convince Americans that President Obama was really born in Africa.
His own campaign in 2016 was marked by slurs against Mexicans, a proposed Muslim ban, and other furors. To deflect criticism, two campaign officials said they regularly positioned a supporter nicknamed “Michael the Black Man” so cameras would show him behind Trump at his rallies.
In the White House, Trump equated “both sides” of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., referred to African nations as “shithole countries,” and said Nigerian visitors to the United States would never “go back to their huts.”
Trump has insisted he is the “least racist person you have ever met” and over the years he has made friends with prominent African-Americans, particularly sports and hip-hop stars. Just Friday, Trump spoke with rapper Kanye West and promised to intervene in the case of his fellow artist ASAP Rocky, who is being held in Sweden on an assault charge, and followed up by calling the Swedish prime minister on Saturday.
Some of Trump’s black friends defended him in recent days, saying his raw, politically incorrect approach was just bracing honesty about the reality of America, and not motivated by hate.
“I have an advantage of knowing the president very well, and he’s not a racist and his comments are not racist,” Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development and only black member of the Cabinet, said on Fox News. “But he loves the country very much and, you know, he has a feeling that those who represent the country should love it as well.”
Lynne Patton, a Trump family event planner now working in the administration, rejected accusations of racism.
“Trump sees success and failure, not color not race, not gender not religion,” said Patton, who is African-American. “I’ve traveled the country with this family, I’ve had drinks with this family, I’ve been at their weddings, their baby showers, their bachelorette parties. I’ve never heard anyone say anything bigoted or racist in my life.”
And White House officials argue that actions speak louder than words. Unemployment among Hispanics and African-Americans has fallen to record lows on Trump’s watch, they say, and the president signed legislation overhauling a criminal justice system tilted against people of color.
But the longer Trump spends on the stage, the more friends and former employees, like Michael D. Cohen, Omarosa Manigault Newman, and Anthony Scaramucci, have concluded that he is more racist than they had admitted.
“Let me be clear: Donald Trump is a disgusting, filthy, petty racist and he is trying to start a race war in this country and what we saw this week is just the beginning,” said Manigault Newman, a former “Apprentice” star fired after a stint in the White House.
Scaramucci, who briefly served as White House communications director, wrote on Twitter that Trump would never have told a white immigrant to go back to his country. “That’s why the comments were racist and unacceptable,” he said, remarks that got him disinvited from a Republican fund-raiser.
Trump is a product of his place and time, born and raised in the Queens of another era. As he sought to make his mark in Manhattan real estate in the 1980s and 1990s, New York was struggling with a string of racial episodes, including the Bernhard H. Goetz subway shooting, the Howard Beach racial killing, the Tawana Brawley rape hoax, and the Crown Heights riots.
In a city rived by tribal politics, elections were about assembling coalitions — ethnic groups in Queens and Brooklyn, Hispanics in the Bronx, African-Americans in Harlem, and, later, central Brooklyn. Race was a part of every citywide campaign every four years. That shaped the outlook of many rising stars of the moment.
“It was a period of enormous tension and the city was a caldron for those kind of emotions and very strong passions and feelings, and they spilled over,” said Robert Abrams, the special prosecutor in the Brawley case. “And unfortunately, I think Donald Trump was helping to fan some of those flames.”
The Justice Department housing discrimination lawsuit against him and his father and the case of the Central Park Five were early milemarkers on Trump’s path.
But he was a Democrat then operating in a diverse city and he showed a different side to many he met.
Charles B. Rangel, then a powerful African-American Democratic congressman from New York, saw Trump regularly when the developer would drop off checks for the party. What defined him was his “giant ego,” Rangel said the other day, but he never heard him make a racial remark.
“I don’t remember any remarks . . . that was not sharing with me how much he thought about himself,” he said. “It was always the same story.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader who has grown more publicly critical of Trump in recent years, likewise recalled nothing overt. “I’ve never heard him say anything racial,” he said. But, he added, “I always sensed he was not comfortable being around us. He reminded me what he was — a Queens guy. He saw us as entertainers or athletes that he had to do business with.”
When Trump opened Mar-a-Lago as a club in the 1990s, he welcomed African-American and Jewish members. Still, he did not mind turning societal divisions to his advantage, at one point claiming Palm Beach was anti-Semitic in a zoning dispute because his members would be Jewish.
‘Laziness Is a Trait in Blacks’
Some who worked for Trump said he showed his true colors after growing comfortable with people. Jack O’Donnell, who was president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino and later wrote a scathing book about Trump, said the mogul would come into the casino and notice many African-Americans. “It’s a little dark tonight,” he would say.
According to O’Donnell, Trump said “laziness is a trait in blacks” and complained about an African-American accountant: “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.”
In an interview, O’Donnell said Trump trafficked in stereotypes. “He genuinely believes things like white people are smarter. And black people don’t want to live next to white, and white people don’t want to live next to black people,” O’Donnell said. “And he rationalizes that as, everybody thinks that, so it’s not racist.”
Trump’s assumptions about people are based on what his biographer, Michael D’Antonio, called his “racehorse theory of human development.” D’Antonio said Trump told him a person’s genetic traits at birth were more important than anything learned over life.
“He likes to put people in these boxes and deal with them accordingly,” D’Antonio said. “It’s not universal and you can work your way out of the box. But working your way out of it is always personal. So one by one, black people can gain his confidence, but he does have this mentality about people as members of a group.”
‘The Blacks Love Me’
That helped shape Trump’s time on “The Apprentice,” where he was accused of giving short shrift to an African-American contestant, Randal Pinkett, who won the fourth season. During the finale, Pinkett said he was stunned when Trump, upon declaring him the winner, suggested he share the honor with the white woman he had just beaten.
“I would describe it as racist,” Pinkett said in an interview. “Not even racist overtones — racist.”
“Donald,” he said, “has constructed a world around him that reflects his identity and reflects his values. People who agree with him, people who celebrate him, people who he would consider to be his peers — wealthy, white men.”
Pinkett added: “He’s completely out of touch with the realities of people not like him. Whether that’s people of color, ethnic minorities, immigrants — I mean, take your pick.”
Over the years, Trump has deflected criticism by citing friendships with black celebrities. In the 1980s, he became a fixture ringside in Atlantic City, befriending the boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson and promoter Don King. He briefly owned a US Football League team, leading to friendship with its star player, Herschel Walker.
As the hip-hop industry flourished in the 1990s and 2000s, rappers often used Trump’s name in lyrics as a symbol of wealth and flash. Along the way, he became friendly with Sean Combs, Snoop Dogg, and Russell Simmons.
Trump boasted about the mention of his name in rap videos, asking one of the secretaries to find examples on YouTube and play them for guests. “The blacks love me,” Trump said proudly.
By 2015, now running for president, he stopped using “the” before describing ethnic groups. While some black celebrities stood by Trump, other relationships have soured because of his politics. Simmons, in an open letter that year, told his estranged friend to “stop fueling fires of hate.”