A Publicity Stunt at the National Prayer Breakfast?

In his speech at the annual event, the president went on a digression promoting The Apprentice, a show he co-produces.

President Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast
Carlos Barria / Reuters

The National Prayer Breakfast, held annually in Washington, D.C., is typically a scandal-free part of the president’s schedule. Since 1953, every commander-in-chief, usually alongside members of Congress, Cabinet officials, and a wide variety of prominent guests, has taken one morning a year to address the gathering, which the Christian organization The Fellowship hosts as an annual acknowledgement of the role of faith in American public life. The most notable story to arise out of the event in recent years was when Ben Carson, in a speech at the 2013 event, railed against “moral decay and fiscal irresponsibility” under the Obama administration, a moment that many say jump-started his eventual run for president in 2016.

However, as has previously been the case over the past 18 months, President Donald Trump used a decades-old political tradition to pick a personal fight. In a speech emphasizing the importance of religious liberty, Trump also took time to discuss a personal favorite topic: The Apprentice. As he has noted before, the reality TV show, for which he still serves as an executive producer, has seen its ratings decline under its current host (and the former governor of California), Arnold Schwarzenegger, and new name, The New Celebrity Apprentice. Discussing his relationship with Mark Burnett, the creator of The Apprentice and a keynote speaker at the event, Trump emphasized his own success with the show, adding, “They hired a big, big movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take my place, and we know how that turned out. The ratings went right down the tubes. It’s been a total disaster, and Mark [Burnett] will never bet against Trump again. And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings.”

Amid speculation that the whole thing may have been a ratings stunt, Schwarzenegger quickly fired back via Twitter, blasting Trump for making the comment at the National Prayer Breakfast and offering to switch jobs with the president:

A spokesman for Schwarzenegger also responded, saying, “Arnold is praying that President Trump can start improving his own approval ratings, which were the worst in history for an incoming president, by taking his job seriously and working inclusively.”

Setting aside the oddity of Trump’s barb at a traditionally subdued event, Trump’s decision is yet another illustration of his unique status as the country’s first businessman-president. On top of his general tendency toward digression, there is a clear incentive for Trump to attempt to stir up controversy over his relationship with the show. As long as he remains an executive producer, Trump has a financial stake in the program’s ratings: The higher its viewership grows, the longer it stays on air, and the more companies see the value in sponsoring it, the more money Trump can make from it. Schwarzenegger, too, has an obvious investment in the show’s continued success, meaning that, if he can endure an occasional barb from the president, he has plenty of incentive to keep up the appearance of a beef.

Trump’s speech, then, is doubly digressive from presidential precedent. Where previous executives have mostly used the National Prayer Breakfast to discuss religion, Trump instead grabbed headlines with what may very well have been a publicity stunt. And, where presidents typically distance themselves from their previous financial ties to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, Trump’s brazen refusal to do so has already led to an ever-growing number of reports showing how Trump is intermingling his role as president with his business empire. Already, his involvement with The New Celebrity Apprentice has figured into the controversy: In suing Trump for an alleged breach of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, the ethics organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington listed the show as a potential violation due to “payments from foreign-government-owned broadcasters related to rebroadcasts and foreign versions.” For Trump to openly tout the show at the National Prayer Breakfast only further cements just how different his demeanor and continued commitment to his businesses make him from his predecessors.