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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Penn Jillette says it would be immoral to share the dirt he has on Donald Trump

Illustration for article titled Penn Jillette says it would be immoral to share the dirt he has on Donald Trump
Photo: Ethan Miller (Getty Images)

Thanks to Omarosa Manigault Newman’s post-firing publicity tour, people can’t stop talking about the potential existence of a recording of Donald Trump using a racial epithet on the set of Celebrity Apprentice. The existence of said tape came up during the 2016 election but, after it failed to materialize, the news cycle moved on. Now, however, even magician Penn Jillette can’t get out of an interview about his career without discussing the Trump tape, though he’s a bit mum on the details.


Pretty early on in Jillette’s interview with Vulture, the conversation turned to politics, the magician’s own libertarian beliefs, and the effect of Trump on the discourse. As a former contestant on Celebrity Apprentice, Jillette was asked point blank if he thought producer Mark Burnett had a tape of Trump saying “damaging things,” to which Jillette responded, “Yeah, I was in the room.” But when pressed to divulge the specifics of what Trump said or didn’t say, the veteran performer cited a moral obligation to keep the story to himself.

If Donald Trump had not become president, I would tell you all the stories. But the stakes are now high and I am an unreliable narrator. What I do, as much as anything, is I’m a storyteller. And storytellers are liars. So I can emotionally tell you things that happened racially, sexually, and that showed stupidity and lack of compassion when I was in the room with Donald Trump and I guarantee you that I will get details wrong…And I will tell you things, but I will very conscientiously not give you quotations because I believe that would be morally wrong. I’m not trying to protect myself. This really is a moral thing.

Without going into specifics, Jillette does go on to paint a fairly believable picture of Trump on set of The Apprentice, “emotionally”:

He would say racially insensitive things that made me uncomfortable. I don’t think he ever said anything in that room like “African-Americans are inferior” or anything about rape or grabbing women, but of those two hours every other day in a room with him, every ten minutes was fingernails on chalkboard. He would ask one cast member if he’d rather have sex with this woman or that woman. He would be reading on the web about a real-estate deal he’d made — like he’d sold his house for a certain amount and someone on some blog had said he should have gotten more. Then he would turn and say that making X amount on a house makes him a good businessman, right? I would say to him, “What are you talking about? You don’t know who it is reporting that. Is that Forbes?” He had no idea.

But Jillette makes it clear that all these things were said in the context of a reality TV show set, where human beings are encouraged to act like monsters. “I hate to say this, but playing tapes of him doing that job might be unfair,” Jillette says. “Context is really tricky.”

Credit to Vulture for reminding Jillette that Donald Trump has a history of saying offensive and demeaning remarks in all sorts of contexts (including this morning on Twitter). That, in itself, might be the best argument against the damaging nature of this ever-elusive tape. How impactful is it to hear Trump saying something uniquely awful on the set of a TV show when we have hours of him saying things that are generally awful in front of screaming crowds? But, who knows, maybe this tape will be the last nail in the coffin. We’ll just have to wait for Mark Burnett to grow a conscience before we can find out.


You can read Vulture’s full conversation with Penn Jillette here.

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