Omarosa Manigault Newman’s new book comes with an explosive title. (“Unhinged.”) It has a healthy frisson of tension followed by a climactic reveal. (She taped her colleagues! In the White House Situation Room!) And it has just enough cliffhangers to keep viewers coming back for more. (She may or may not have heard a recording of President Trump using the n-word.)
To Trump, this should come as no surprise.
After all, Manigault Newman perfected her flair for the sensational, her cult of personality and her savvy use of media while apprenticing for the master himself: Donald J. Trump.
The Omarosa of popular imagination is in large part Trump’s creation, and that creation is wreaking havoc on the White House. Manigault Newman’s controversial allegations, some of which are not verified, have rattled the president and thrust his aides into damage-control mode.
The Trump campaign said Tuesday that it was seeking to force the former staffer into binding arbitration under the terms of a 2016 confidentiality agreement that the campaign claimed her book violated. Manigault Newman, who held a senior staff position in the White House until she was fired in December 2017, said she did not believe she had violated the contract.
“It’s interesting that he’s trying to silence me. So what is he trying to hide? What is he afraid of?” she said in an interview with MSNBC’s Katy Tur. “I think he should be afraid of being exposed as the misogynist, the bigot and the racist that he is.”
Meanwhile, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders struggled to defend Trump on Tuesday against charges of racism. Pressed about whether she could guarantee that there is not a recording of Trump uttering the n-word, as Manigault Newman asserts, Sanders said, “I can’t guarantee anything,” though she said she had “never” heard Trump use the racist slur.
The image of the White House press secretary unable to unequivocally state that the president has never uttered the most unacceptable racial slur is suggestive of a reality television cliffhanger.
In a way, it was. Trump discovered Manigault Newman during the first season of his NBC reality show, “The Apprentice,” as a fully formed antiheroine. He quickly realized her particular brand of mischief-making narcissism was a ratings bonanza. And she returned for two spinoffs, as well as a short-lived dating show collaboration.
“Omarosa always promises and delivers high drama,” Trump tweeted in 2013. “Honest Omarosa: she won’t backstab — she’ll come at you from the front.”
Trump, who at the time was trying to make the move from tabloid curiosity to full-blown celebrity, was mesmerized by how well audiences responded to Manigault Newman as a captivating character, according to Trump biographer Timothy O’Brien, who says he had several conversations with Trump about Manigault Newman. In her, Trump saw a reflection of himself.
In a Bloomberg column calling them “kindred spirits,” O’Brien wrote: “The future president was fascinated by her. He was fascinated by her self-absorption and nastiness, fascinated by her fleeting star power and fascinated by the fact that she was publicly recognizable by her first name alone, sort of like Prince or Madonna.”
Manigault Newman followed Trump into politics. During the 2016 campaign, she was one of Trump’s most steadfast defenders against accusations of racism and sexism — the very charges she is now leveling against him. Then in the White House, she reprised her role as villain, feuding with West Wing staff and allegedly shirking her duties before she was dismissed by Chief of Staff John F. Kelly.
And now, like in the “Jurassic Park” film series — in which the dinosaurs turn on the scientists who created them — Manigault Newman has unleashed Trump’s own tricks and tactics against him.
“She’s doing Trump as well or better than he is,” said Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee chairman. “This is his mini-me. He created Omarosa. He gave her license and invited her into the sacred space of the Oval Office . . . Now, after having created this monster that’s coming back on him, what’s he going to do?”
The answer, for now at least, is tweet.
The president has hurled one insult after another at his onetime protegee. Over the past few days, Trump has tweeted that Manigault Newman is a “dog,” a “lowlife,” “wacky,” “deranged,” “vicious” and “not smart.”
This is a departure from the praise the two have lavished on each other over the years. During a 2016 campaign stop in Detroit, Trump called Manigault Newman “a very nice person.”
“But I don’t want to say that because I’ll destroy her image by saying that,” Trump said, referring to her “Apprentice” caricature. “But she’s actually a very, very fine person and a pastor.”
With Manigault Newman hopscotching television studios to promote her book, Trump’s advisers had hoped he would refrain from engaging her to avoid drawing attention to her allegations and help boost sales. At her Tuesday briefing, Sanders would not utter her former colleague’s name, referring to Manigault Newman only as “this individual.”
But Trump has shown no such restraint. Longtime Trump observers say it is a measure of his rage and sense of betrayal that he called Manigault Newman “that dog.” The president, who has an aversion to dogs and other pets, considers canine comparisons to be among his most devastating put-downs.
“I think he sort of thought of Omarosa as his invention, as in, ‘I made you and therefore you owe me forever,’” said Tony Schwartz, co-author with Trump of the 1987 book “The Art of the Deal.” “The fact that she turned out to be as nefarious and vicious as Trump infuriates him.”
Some who have appeared most effective countering Trump are those who employ his tactics, such as Michael Avenatti, attorney for adult-film star Stormy Daniels, and Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer now under federal investigation. They are relentless and omnipresent. They create drama, hold news cycles hostage and dribble out tantalizing nuggets.
In the case of Cohen as well as Manigault Newman, they have secret audio recordings, too.
“She’s using the same tactics she learned on ‘The Apprentice’ from Donald Trump and [producer] Mark Burnett, like using hidden microphones that people don’t know you have to trap them into saying something that might be in your interest and not theirs, and be as inflammatory as possible with whatever footage you get,” said Jennifer Pozner, author of “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.”
As Manigault Newman said in her Monday interview with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle and Ali Velshi, “The president talked often, as you’ll see in ‘Unhinged,’ about how important it was to tape your enemies, and to make sure you had information on your enemies.”
A central irony is that while Trump in real life often intimates he has secret recordings, he rarely, if ever, publicly produces them. While some in his orbit believe he has actually recorded conversations, others believe his threats to deploy them are mere bluster and intimidation. But some of his associates have, in fact, done as he claimed.
“If you threaten people long enough with the notion that you’re going to tape them, they themselves are going to start taping you, because they believe at some point you’re going to throw them under the bus and they’re taking out an insurance policy,” said O’Brien, who also is executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion.
“It’s like he signaled to everyone on his team that, ‘You should be just as craven and just as calculating as I am,’ ” O’Brien added, “and they took that to heart.”