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President Trump's ‘Apprentice' Obsession

His televised Supreme Court announcement and bizarre goading of Arnold Schwarzenegger suggest he's not ready to let go of a program that led him to biggest show of all.

Critics accuse President Trump of trying to turn back the clock on everything from immigration to environmental protection. But whatever you think of Trump's policies, it's difficult to deny that over the course of just over 36 hours this week he time-warped his way to a far simpler period: his days on "The Apprentice."

On Tuesday night, he announced his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court on live television, after reportedly summoning both his nominee and apparent runner-up Thomas Hardiman to Washington the day of the big reveal – a drama reminiscent of an "Apprentice"-like hiring-and-firing climax.

By Thursday morning, the world was treated to the bizarre spectacle of the most powerful man on Earth taunting a former Mr. Universe – his "Celebrity Apprentice" successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger – while speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast. "I want to pray for Arnold's ratings," Trump declared.

But he wasn't done. Friday morning Trump was at it again, still egging on his television successor.

The mini-"Apprentice" flashbacks, via the first Reality TV president, suggest Donald Trump is not ready to let go of the program that led him to biggest show of all.

The public allusions to his greatest non-political media triumph, less than two weeks into his presidency, indicate that Trump, who is battling low approval ratings, will revert to what once worked best for him when he needs a boost. No matter that the stakes now are immeasurably higher and the game is (or should be) played far differently.

As Schwarzenegger noted in his tweeted video response to Trump, suggesting they switch jobs: "You take over TV, 'cause you're such an expert in ratings, and I take over your job – and then people can finally sleep comfortably again."

Trump has boasted about not needing much sleep, though the things apparently keeping him up at night include crowd size estimates and getting even with foes, like Schwarzenegger, who supported Hillary Clinton in the general election. The President's obsessions also seem to extend to his old NBC television program – he previously mocked fellow Republican Schwarzenegger's "Celebrity Apprentice" debut ratings last month, even before taking office.

As a showman, Trump knows the value of using theatrics to both divert attention from big problems and draw attention – in this case, to a show on which he's still listed as executive producer. He likely learned a lesson or two in going from celebrity to politician from Schwarzenegger, an immigrant bodybuilder-turned-movie-superstar who announced what turned out to be a successful run for governor of California on "The Tonight Show" in 2003.

It's unclear whether Trump will follow the pop culture path of President Obama, a favorite “Tonight Show” guest who appeared on more entertainment television programs than any sitting U.S. chief executive during his eight-year run.  

But Trump, who now regularly scorns and bypasses the media that aided his rise to fame and power, seems happy to use events like his most important appointment yet and a normally solemn prayer breakfast to stage an “Apprentice” spinoff that’s only just begun.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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