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Was Donald Trump’s The Apprentice the definition of a hostile work environment?

Donald Trump with Shawn Johnson
Donald Trump with retired gymnast Shawn Johnson, who was on Celebrity Apprentice for five episodes in 2015. (Johnson wasn’t a source for the allegations against him.)
Rob Kim/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

When he hosted his reality show The Apprentice, Donald Trump kept up a stream of running commentary on his the looks of his female contestants and employees — including comments about their breast size, whether they were on their period, whether they would sleep with him, and whether they looked like his daughter Ivanka, according to reports from the Associated Press and Slate.

Trump’s attitude toward women is getting more attention after he spent much of last week feuding with Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe. Hillary Clinton mentioned Machado near the end of the first presidential debate, saying that Trump called her “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping.”

But the reports make clear that Machado was part of a pattern. They say Trump:

  • Talked about which contestants he’d like to have sex with: “He just stopped in the middle and pointed to someone and said, 'You'd [fuck] her, wouldn't you? I'd [fuck] her. C'mon, wouldn't you?'“ a former crew member told the AP.
  • Asked male contestants which female contestants they’d like to sleep with: “If there was a break in the conversation, he would then look at one of the female cast members, saying 'you're looking kind of hot today, I love that dress on you,' then he would turn to one of the male cast members and say 'wouldn't you sleep with her?' and then everyone would laugh,” a former crew member told the AP.
  • Described women by their breast size: “He said, 'You mean the one with the' — and he puts his hands out in a gesture to signal the girl with the giant boobs,” a former producer told the AP. “He didn't even know her name.”
  • Singled out one woman, a camera operator, for attention and compared her to his daughter Ivanka.
  • Asked a contestant to twirl for him so he could look at her body (the woman told the AP she found it “playful” and was pleased to be compared to Ivanka Trump).
  • Suggested that a contestant’s breasts appeared larger when she was cast because she was on her period at the time: “He walked in one day and was talking about a contestant, saying, ‘Her breasts were so much bigger at the casting. Maybe she had her period then,’” a producer told Slate.

And the AP and Slate reported that Trump made many of these comments on camera, in footage that was never broadcast, or while wearing a microphone for taping purposes. In some cases, dozens of people could hear them, and Trump didn’t seem to care.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but these allegations could qualify as the textbook definition of a hostile work environment due to sexual harassment — which would be illegal. And while it’s common for women on TV to face more scrutiny about their appearance, commenting on their sexual desirability to their co-workers is still way out of bounds.

Trump’s high-profile fights with Megyn Kelly, Rosie O’Donnell, and other women might look like celebrity feuds. But what’s described in these reports could be considered sexual harassment, facilitated by the power imbalance between Trump, the wealthy and powerful star of the show, and the women working for him or competing for his approval.

The most chilling quote in the AP’s report comes from a woman who said she personally wasn’t offended by Trump: “Most men have to behave because they are in a workplace, but he could do what he wanted.”

As president, Trump would be one of the most powerful men in the world. His track record on his reality show suggests how he might use that power to treat women working in the federal government or leading foreign governments the way he treated women on his TV show.

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