Rod Blagojevich had made the wrong move.
He had thrown what dwindling political capital he had behind Sinbad the comedian, a key ally in his quixotic bid to win the 2010 season of Celebrity Apprentice.
And now Sinbad was gone, fired by future President Donald Trump. That left Blagojevich hanging, bereft of a crucial ally.
“Governor, what did you think of the boardroom?” the future President said to Blagojevich.
“Glad I’m still here to fight another day,” Blagojevich replied, before stammering: “I think, uh, considering all the circumstances, uh, uh.”
Trump interrupted to defend the Sinbad firing: “It was the right decision.”
The exchange came in the third episode of Blagojevich’s breathtakingly absurd four-episode run on Celebrity Apprentice. The former Illinois governor had taken the TV gig as he awaited trial on federal criminal charges for attempting to auction off Barack Obama’s Senate seat, trying to pull off what the Celebrity Apprentice host-turned-President has shown himself to do best: leverage trashy media appearances into personal gains.
Nearly a decade later Blagojevich is serving a 14-year prison sentence, and Trump is publicly musing about issuing either a pardon or commutation to Blagojevich.
But in a twist that could have come from NBC’s most voracious producers, Trump may be toying with Blagojevich and his pardon in the same way that he needled the disgraced politician on the show. Fox News reported on Tuesday that Blagojevich “made it to processing” last week for release from federal prison in Littleton, Colorado. But after a Trump official expressed concern about the forthcoming commutation, it was put on hold, stoking new uncertainty over Blagojevich’s release.
It’s likely a familiar situation for the Chicago pol, who showcased both his bizarre relationship with Trump on the show as well as his own screaming ineptitude, infuriating his fellow teammates while giving Trump an early opportunity to mock a politician up close.
Blagojevich’s season on Celebrity Apprentice included Sinbad, Cyndi Lauper, former Mets right-fielder Darryl “the straw” Strawberry, Poison frontman Bret Michaels, and Sharon Osbourne, among others.
Blagojevich began the show as an outcast from his team, with even his fellow reality TV contestants wondering aloud why he was there. But Blagojevich ingeniously found ways to make things worse, alternately ducking out from tasks to take phone calls related to his then-impending trial while returning to issue bizarre and cringe-worthy denunciations of his teammates.
In one episode, for example, Blagojevich told Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson that “we‘re making some of the same mistakes we made in the last project, which is prematurely ejaculating when we need more foreplay.”
“Wow,” Johnson replied, as the other contestants stared at each other in silence.
Blagojevich then ducked out to gladhand around New York City, proclaiming his innocence before a phone call with his attorney interrupted him.
“This guy was a close friend of mine, lying piece of shit,” Blagojevich howled into his phone during the call, before adding: “there’s no tape that corroborates that, right?”
In another episode, Blagojevich found himself tasked as a waiter, telling patrons: “I didn’t do those things by the way – I’m here to serve.”
Halfway through, Trump sent in acid-tongued comedian Joan Rivers as a kind of spy-kamikaze hybrid with a mission to report back while sacrificing whatever dignity remained.
Blagojevich introduced himself to Rivers as “innocent of all charges,” and later received her wrath: She told Trump that he had delivered the food cold because he was talking so much, with Trump demanding to know why Blagojevich had failed to bring in more money.
“I’m in an unusual position,” Blagojevich explained. “When I come calling for money these days, someone else is listening.”
As the tasks progressed, Blagojevich’s team came to realize that, in the words of Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson, “there’s not much he can do.” Blagojevich couldn’t use a computer or text, for example, and struggled to express himself using the everyday language of humans, and not stump speeches.
But even as his team grappled with Blagojevich’s essential uselessness, Trump kept him on. He fired Sinbad on the second episode, and, in the next one, canned Strawberry after Blago’s team failed another task.
By the fourth episode, Johnson nominated him as project leader because he hadn’t “contributed as much as everyone else.”
“Here’s Rod Blagojevich, governor of Illinois, he must have some leadership skills,” Johnson said.
For Trump – who took care to humiliate Blagojevich over and over again by discussing his legal situation as if the governor weren’t present – having a somewhat bona fide politician on the show seemed to be a genuine source of excitement. Watching with the benefit of hindsight over the past nine years brings the full absurdity of Trump’s political aspirations – and subsequent election – to bear.
“It’s time for a New Deal, it’s time to get back to work,” Trump said in the show intro. “It’s time for Celebrity Apprentice.”
Trump went out of his way to accomplish the unbelievably easy task of presenting Blagojevich as inauthentic, rubbing salt in the self-inflicted wound of his federal prosecution. Blagojevich, from his side, seemed to crave Trump’s approval, and was clearly grateful to have a national platform on which to proclaim his innocence.
Blagojevich’s firing illustrates this. After epically failing at a task that involved taking a private jet to Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter (“you don’t need a passport for that”), Blagojevich found himself being judged, once more, by Trump.
“I don’t know that we’re seeing the real Rod,” Trump mused, before telling Johnson, the African-American Olympic sprinter, that “Rod doesn’t want to get angry at you because, frankly, there may be some black jurors and they may be angry that he got angry at you.”
Trump then added to Blagojevich that “you’re a guy with great courage. I know people that get into trouble, and they just want to go home to mommy, and I see them fold like a tent.”
As Blagojevich started to beg Trump to stay on the show, the Celebrity Apprentice host and future President replied “even that’s great – he just wants to go on and win.”
But Trump then started to grill Blagojevich about Harry Potter – telling him that his “Harry Potter facts were not accurate!”
“Governor, I have great respect for you, I have great respect for your tenacity, for the fact that you just don’t give up, but Rod, you’re fired,” Trump said.
Unlike the other contestants, who walked away, Blagojevich reached across the table to shake Trump’s hand.
“Thanks for the opportunity,” he said, before leaving to face trial the following summer.