Detroit’s CEOs Kiss Up to Trump on “The Apprentice: Automotive Edition”
The Drive uncovers the bizarre script of an automaker edition of the reality show.
The wary dance between Detroit and President Donald Trump has become a near-daily event. And for the Detroit Three’s CEO’s, every step, feint and spin is performed on eggshells. One minute you’re up, having productive meetings with the Boss, expressing optimism for the economy. The next minute you’re down, forced to defend Mexican factories or wag a public finger at Trump over his immigration ban; as with Mark Fields, whose Ford Motor Co. happens to be headquartered in Dearborn, Mich., the American city whose 30-percent concentration of Arab-Americans is the nation’s largest.
It's a surreal episode of The Apprentice, a made-for-TV spectacle in which millionaire car executives are forced to curry favor with Trump and hopefully steer the Prez to their way of thinking, all without incurring his wrath, rants, or score-settling. In some ways, the timing couldn’t be better.
In 2012, all three automakers agreed that the Obama administration’s 54.5 mpg CAFE fuel-economy target, while challenging, was well within their engineering reach. For General Motors and Fiat Chrysler, achieving those standards was a specific condition of their $80 billion bailout. The automakers have already invested billions toward that 2025 goal, and it’s paying off with more efficient, competitive cars that can better protect them against sudden spikes in fuel prices that used to deep-six sales.
Tellingly, boosting economy and trimming pollution hasn’t destroyed their companies (the dire warning beloved by automakers for decades) or jacked up car prices. Instead, the Detroit Three is selling more cars and banking more profits than any time in history.
For all that, we're seeing new rumblings and threats of industry backsliding to the fire-and-brimstone days of smoggy skies and unrepentant guzzling; from the approval of Scott Priutt as EPA chief, to Fields’ jaw-dropping, largely unsupported assertion that meeting those fuel-economy targets could cost up to 1 million American jobs.
Coincidentally, The Drive has obtained a secret transcript for a comeback episode of The Apprentice. Sharing a studio with the first president who may love business even more than they do, the Detroit CEO’s spot a rare opportunity, and they’re determined to exploit it for fame and fortune. You may not believe all the things they said. We barely do ourselves, but check it out:
The Apprentice: Automotive Edition
(Cue The O’Jays, “For the Love of Money”).
President Trump: Hello, my fellow Americans, and the rest of you. It’s your President, Commander-in-Chief and all-time-great reality host, whose ratings were much, much bigger than Arnold Schwarzenegger's.
Now, a yuge welcome to our contestants. They’re brilliant, they’re rich, they're successful, they’re some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. These fantastic Americans are vying to become my number-one confidante on all things automotive. That includes the factories they tell me will move from Mexico to some place called Guangzhou, which our contestants assure me is in Indiana.
Anyway, enough about me, for a second. Let’s meet our guests: From Ford Motor Co., chief executive Mark Fields. From General Motors, the first boss lady in the history of this magnificent global corporation, Mary Barra. And from Fiat Chrysler—that’ll be “Chrysler Fiat” before the first commercial break, believe me—Sergio Marchionne. Sergio, you’ll be holding the special Green Card during this show.
Now, let’s hear from our contestants on how they’ll put Detroit back on top, instead of this American carnage inner-city hell. Terrible stuff, I’m hearing. Let’s start with the guy in the sweater. You, Marchionne.
Marchionne: Mr., er, President Trump. As you know, I’m excited to work with you, and I believe your ideas for tax breaks and border tax adjustments will make FCA’s business boom.
Trump: That goes without saying. Continue.
Marchionne: Here’s the tricky part. We’ve basically stopped making cars at Chrysler, because not enough people were buying them.
Trump: And why would they? The Dart sucked like a runway model on a first date.
Marchionne: So we’ve been selling Fiats instead. We were thinking everyone would just buy a Ram, what with gas being so cheap. But apparently not every American wants a 5,000-pound pickup truck.
Marchionne: Si, si. But here’s the thing: Nobody, and I mean nobody, is buying the Fiats. I mean, they’re so cute, and Italian, with the J. Lo singing, and we thought people would grab them by the bull's horns.
Trump: Enough. Sergio, what’s the bottom line?
Marchionne: Tell the EPA to stop picking on us like we're the diesel Cosa Nostra. And would you please just order GM to merge with our company already?
Barra: I’ll march on Washington before I let that happen.
Trump: I like the sound of it: “General Trump’s Chrysler Motors.” It would instantly become the world’s biggest automaker, and I would accept the credit I deserve. But no Fiat, until they move enough cars to deserve their name on the building.
Marchionne: Wait, I didn’t mean that you’d be part of…
Trump: Relax, Sergio, I'm kidding. Listen, you want a merger with Mary, you’re going to have to sweet-talk her yourself. You Italians are good at that, although let me tell you that Don Giovanni is overrated compared with this Don. Two words: Tremendous skills.
Fields: Excuse me, Mr. President, may I interject? We already discussed how 1 million jobs could be lost from stricter fuel economy and emissions standards.
Trump: That sounds like an alternative fact. You’re getting the hang of this, Fields.
Fields: The real issue is that the EPA has been letting California—which voted for Clinton, you may recall—set its own emissions rules since 2009, and that’s just not fair. Because their rules are hard, and about 17 other states are already following their lead. If this keeps up, the majority of states will expect their cars to get better mileage and stop barbecuing the polar ice caps. And what kind of a country will that be?
Trump: Not the country I want to live in. I’m putting Pruitt on that. I call him “Smokestack Lightning.” (Arches eyebrows).
Barra, Fields, Marchionne, in unison: Oh...Ha, good one, boss!
Trump: You should have seen him when he was attorney general of Oklahoma, suing the pants off the EPA. Now he’s running the EPA! Even I can’t believe it sometimes. Priutt’s going to drain the swamp, and reroute it to the water supply in Flint.
Now, Mary, tell me how you'll make Detroit great again.
Barra: Ok, but remember these are top-secret business plans, and you didn't hear this from me. We want to build cars wherever the hell they generate the most profits, even if it's that child-labor mine in that crappy Indiana Jones movie. We’d like to emasculate the EPA, and delay or weaken emissions rules. Ugh, and that California Air Resources Board? I mean, put a sock in it, or they can enjoy some fresh air at Guantanamo! Amirite?
Trump. As a fellow, misunderstood bankruptcy sufferer, let me say I’m impressed by your quick recovery. You’re minting money, everyone is teary-eyed for Detroit and its forgotten workers, yada yada. But you've also been talking a big game about building electric and autonomous cars, getting off fossil fuels, revolutionizing things. The boasting has been almost unseemly, even I would say.
So, your final test, a little Art of the Deal: What would you do if I unshackle your industry, carve corporate taxes to the bone and gut the Clean Air Act? Are you going to back me up, or pretend it was all my idea? What's your comeback when the lying media accuses you of trying to take America back to the Fifties, when Detroit had never heard of foreign competition, when smog was just a cancerous gleam in California’s eye?
Marchionne: Um, that America was so much better in the Fifties?
Trump: That is the most ridiculous, cynical, shameless PR spin I’ve ever heard. I love it! I mean, are you Marchionne or Machiavelli? I knew there were no losers on this panel. Together, we’ll put America back on the road to Greatness. Then we'll pave that road—with concrete left over from the Wall.
Barra: Do you think Americans will buy it?
Trump: Trust me, it's called marketing. I can already see tomorrow's headline: “President Trump Saves 1 Million Jobs Over Lunch.” Don't worry, they'll mention you in the second paragraph. Or would you prefer that to read, "$5-a-gallon gasoline, millions of Americans thrown out of work, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones..."
Barra: I don’t think that’s exactly what would…
Trump [pulling out smartphone, punching up Twitter]: You have three seconds to answer.
Barra [quivering]: It’s brilliant, Mr. President. JFK’s got nothing on you. Just one thing...
Barra: Those 20-percent Mexican tariffs you’re proposing? They’re kind of silly when you think about it. For one, the tariffs' costs will just be passed to American consumers. Our Mexican cars are already stuffed with American-made parts that currently cross the border tax-free. Then there’s that Trans Pacific Partnership. It got a lot of bad press, but by steadily wiping away 18,000 tariffs on our businesses from 11 Asian countries, it would have boosted real incomes for Americans by about $131 billion a year, or 0.5 percent of GDP, and our annual exports by $357 billion. Now, I know this is complicated, Mr. President, but the world is all interconnected now, and we can’t just unwind everything and start trade wars and…
Trump: Stop, Mary. I’ve heard enough. Don’t make me go all Rosie O’Donnell on you. And what’s that you’re wearing?
Barra: It’s a, a... a pantsuit, Mr. President.
Trump: You’re fired.