This past week’s political news seemed to be all about Donald Trump and his possible run for the Presidency – and his plans to announce his intent to run on the season finale of The Apprentice. When, a week ago, we wrote about the President declaring his candidacy, there was little interest in our post, and there seemed to be little news attention in general to that announcement. But when Donald Trump started making noise about his possible Presidential run, and his plans to announce his intent on the season finale of The Apprentice in May, our phones started ringing, asking how can he do that? My partner David Silverman was quoted in a Huffington Post article, while my analysis was misunderstood in a Hollywood Reporter legal blog (see why I was misunderstood below). But the question remains – can Trump continue on The Apprentice while signaling his interest in running for President?
In fact, there is no FCC rule that prohibits a broadcaster from giving airtime to a political candidate on any kind of program, as long as they are willing to provide equal time to opposing candidates. There may be other legal issues involved in giving time to a candidate as it may in effect be a deemed a campaign contribution to the candidate (an issue apparently for PACs as well, as explained by that legal scholar Steven Colbert, here), but the FCC’s equal time rules don’t prohibit the appearance of a candidate on an entertainment program, they only demand that the stations that broadcast the program give equal amounts of time to opposing candidates who ask for it – if the opponents ask for it within 7 days of the candidate’s appearance. And that is often the first issue – will the opposing candidate ask for it? None of the Republicans asked when cable networks continued to run episodes of Law and Order featuring Fred Thompson, even after Thompson declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination. Nor did other candidates request time after there was a parade of candidate appearances on Saturday Night Live during the last election (see our post on this pattern of candidates passing on their equal time rights). But would a Trump declaration of a candidacy on The Apprentice even face that minimal risk? Probably not.