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Mark Burnett’s Ties to Trump Put Him in Tricky Situation

Variety logo Variety 1/19/2017 Cynthia Littleton

Donald Trump brings a wealth of diverse business connections with him to the White House. From his years in the entertainment industry, there’s no more significant relationship that he forged than his ties to the prolific and wildly successful TV producer Mark Burnett.

Burnett courted Trump for the role that vaulted the media-savvy billionaire onto the national stage — as the star of NBC’s reality-competition series “The Apprentice” — by emphasizing the inspiration he had drawn from the 1987 book “Trump: The Art of the Deal.”

Starting in early 2004, Burnett and Trump turned “The Apprentice,” and later “The Celebrity Apprentice,” into a global juggernaut that minted profits through brand integration deals and international format licensing. Local-language productions of the show became hits in the dozens of territories to which it traveled. The U.K. edition remains a top draw for the BBC.

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JAKE CHESSUM for Variety

In almost any scenario, having a personal connection to the U.S. president would be seen as an enormous benefit for a businessman of Burnett’s stature. But in the uncharted territory that is the nascent Trump administration, Burnett’s ties to the incoming commander in chief are fraught with peril.

The widespread disdain within the entertainment industry for Trump’s policies and political rhetoric has the potential to compromise Burnett’s ability to work with some top stars and creatives. This is an especially tough situation for the British-born producer because he now serves as president of MGM Television and Digital Group.

The tightrope Burnett has had to walk was lifted higher last fall amid the furor over Trump’s vulgar and sexist comments that surfaced on a hot-mic recording from a 2005 segment of “Access Hollywood.”

In the final weeks of the bruising presidential campaign, Burnett came under fire to release any damning video or audio recordings captured from Trump’s “Apprentice” days.

In the politically charged environment, it was hard for Burnett’s team to calmly explain that MGM did not have the legal right to release such material, nor was it logistically feasible to comb through hundreds of hours of footage collected during Trump’s 14 seasons. Although Burnett is well established as a supporter of Democrats and of President Obama in particular, conspiracy theories about his effort to shield Trump abounded online.

The uproar finally forced Burnett in October to issue a statement repudiating “the hatred, division, and misogyny” associated with Trump’s campaign. By many accounts, Burnett and Trump had not spent much time together in the years leading up to the presidential campaign. Although Burnett remained the uber-executive producer of “Celebrity Apprentice,” he has long since turned his day-to-day attention to other TV, digital, and film projects, including NBC’s “The Voice” and ABC’s “Shark Tank.”

As Trump’s political career began to gain steam in 2015, Burnett and his wife and frequent producer partner, Roma Downey, were knee-deep in shepherding the production of “Ben-Hur” for MGM and director Timur Bekmambetov.

But the dynamics of the Burnett-Trump relationship shifted again after Election Day. Trump reached out to Burnett for a consult on plans for the inauguration festivities. As one source close to the situation observed, “You don’t turn down a call from the president-elect.”

Burnett’s challenge now is to maintain his friendship with Trump without presenting himself as a political ally of the president.

Since Election Day, Burnett has made several trips to Trump Tower. He most recently visited on Jan. 10 with Los Angeles billionaire biotech entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong in tow, to introduce him to members of Trump’s transition team. But he has carefully declined a public role in the campaign or inaugural committee.

Despite speculation that the inaugural weekend would become a Mark Burnett Production, sources say the heavy lifting of planning and talent recruiting has been handled by committee chairman Tom Barrack, head of the showbiz-connected investment fund Colony Capital, and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a New York-based event planner. (Wolkoff, a former director of events for Vogue, is known for launching the modern era of the glitzy Met Ball gala after Anna Wintour took over as chair of the fundraiser in 1999.)

Burnett, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has not, sources say, used his clout or his Rolodex to help line up talent for the events surrounding Trump’s Jan. 20 swearing-in. To wit, the singer who is set to belt out the national anthem at the ceremony, Jackie Evancho, hails from a show outside of the Burnett orbit, NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”

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As planning for the inaugural activities stepped up, Burnett was busy steering the winter finale of “The Voice,” preparing for the Jan. 18 “People’s Choice Awards” live telecast for CBS, and putting the finishing touches on a deal with Jamie Foxx to host an elaborate music-themed competition series, “Beat Shazam,” for Fox.

Burnett and Downey are expected to attend Trump’s inauguration.

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