For the fourth season of “The Apprentice,” Donald J. Trump searched for a gimmick to bolster ratings. His idea was simple if explosive — pit an all-white team against an all-black team.
“Do you like it?” he asked, previewing the concept on Howard Stern’s radio show in April 2005.
“Yes,” Mr. Stern said.
“Do you like it?” Mr. Trump asked Robin Quivers, the African-American co-host.
“Well,” she said, “I think you’re going to have a riot.”
That gave Mr. Trump no pause. “It would be the highest-rated show on television,” he exulted.
Long before he ignited a firestorm by telling four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to their home countries, even though three were born in the United States and all are citizens, Mr. Trump sought to pit Americans against one another along racial lines.
Over decades in business, entertainment and now politics, Mr. Trump has approached America’s racial, ethnic and religious divisions opportunistically, not as the nation’s wounds to be healed but as openings to achieve his goals, whether they be ratings, fame, money or power, without regard for adverse consequences.
He was accused by government investigators in the 1970s of refusing to rent apartments to black tenants (he denied it but settled the case) and made a name for himself in the 1980s championing the death penalty for five black and Hispanic rape suspects who were later exonerated. He threatened to sell his Mar-a-Lago estate to the Unification Church in 1991 and unleash “thousands of Moonies” if city officials in Palm Beach, Fla., did not allow him to carve up his property.
Taking on competitors of his Atlantic City casinos, he questioned whether rival owners were really Native Americans entitled to federal recognition — then later teamed up with another tribe when there was money to be made. With his eye on the White House, he opened a yearslong drive to convince Americans that President Barack Obama was really born in Africa.
His own campaign in 2016 was marked by slurs against Mexicans, a proposed Muslim ban and other furors. To deflect criticism, two campaign officials said they regularly positioned a supporter nicknamed “Michael the Black Man” so cameras would show him behind Mr. Trump at his rallies.
In the White House, Mr. Trump equated “both sides” of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., referred to African nations as “shithole countries” and said Nigerian visitors to the United States would never “go back to their huts.”
Mr. Trump has insisted he is the “least racist person you have ever met” and over the years he has made friends with prominent African-Americans, particularly sports and hip-hop stars. Just Friday, Mr. Trump spoke with the rapper Kanye West and promised to intervene in the case of his fellow artist ASAP Rocky, who is being held in Sweden on an assault charge, and followed up by calling the Swedish prime minister on Saturday.
Some of Mr. Trump’s black friends defended him in recent days, saying his raw, politically incorrect approach was just bracing honesty about the reality of America, and not motivated by hate.
“I have an advantage of knowing the president very well, and he’s not a racist and his comments are not racist,” Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development and only black member of the cabinet, said on Fox News. “But he loves the country very much and, you know, he has a feeling that those who represent the country should love it as well.”
Lynne Patton, a Trump family event planner now working in the administration, rejected accusations of racism.
“Trump sees success and failure, not color not race, not gender not religion,” said Ms. Patton, who is African-American. “I’ve traveled the country with this family, I’ve had drinks with this family, I’ve been at their weddings, their baby showers, their bachelorette parties. I’ve never heard anyone say anything bigoted or racist in my life.”
And White House officials argue that actions speak louder than words. Unemployment among Hispanics and African-Americans has fallen to record lows on Mr. Trump’s watch, they say, and the president signed legislation overhauling a criminal justice system tilted against people of color.
But the longer Mr. Trump spends on the stage, the more friends and former employees, like Michael D. Cohen, Omarosa Manigault Newman and Anthony Scaramucci, have concluded that he is more racist than they had admitted.
“Let me be clear: Donald Trump is a disgusting, filthy, petty racist and he is trying to start a race war in this country and what we saw this week is just the beginning,” said Ms. Manigault Newman, a former “Apprentice” star fired after a stint in the White House.
Mr. Scaramucci, who briefly served as White House communications director, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Trump would never have told a white immigrant to go back to his country. “That’s why the comments were racist and unacceptable,” he said, remarks that got him disinvited from a Republican fund-raiser.
For some who defended Mr. Trump against charges of racism in the past, this was a turning point. “As much as I have denied it and averted my eyes from it, this latest incident made it impossible,” Geraldo Rivera, a roaming correspondent at large for Fox News and longtime friend, said in an interview.
“My friendship with the president has cost me friendships, it has cost me schisms in the family, my wife and I are constantly at odds about the president,” he added. “I do insist that he’s been treated unfairly. But the unmistakable words, the literal words he said, is an indication that the critics were much more right than I.”
‘The City Was a Caldron’
Mr. Trump is a product of his place and time, born and raised in the Queens of another era. As he sought to make his mark in Manhattan real estate in the 1980s and 1990s, New York was struggling with a string of racial episodes, including the Bernhard H. Goetz subway shooting, the Howard Beach racial killing, the Tawana Brawley rape hoax and the Crown Heights riots.
In a city rived by tribal politics, elections were about assembling coalitions — ethnic groups in Queens and Brooklyn, Hispanics in the Bronx, African-Americans in Harlem and, later, central Brooklyn. Race was a part of every citywide campaign every four years. That shaped the outlook of many rising stars of the moment.
“It was a period of enormous tension and the city was a caldron for those kind of emotions and very strong passions and feelings, and they spilled over,” said Robert Abrams, the special prosecutor in the Brawley case. “And unfortunately, I think Donald Trump was helping to fan some of those flames.”
The Justice Department housing discrimination lawsuit against him and his father and the case of the Central Park Five accused of rape were early milemarkers on Mr. Trump’s path. But he was a Democrat then operating in a diverse city and he showed a different side to many he met.
Charles B. Rangel, then a powerful African-American Democratic congressman from New York, saw Mr. Trump regularly when the developer would drop off checks for the party. What defined him was his “giant ego,” Mr. Rangel said the other day, but he never heard him make a racial remark.
“I don’t remember any remarks he ever made that was not sharing with me how much he thought about himself,” he said. “It was always the same story.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader who has grown more publicly critical of Mr. Trump in recent years, likewise recalled nothing overt. “I’ve never heard him say anything racial,” he said. But, he added, “I always sensed he was not comfortable being around us. He reminded me what he was — a Queens guy. He saw us as entertainers or athletes that he had to do business with.”
When Mr. Trump opened Mar-a-Lago as a club in the 1990s, he welcomed African-American and Jewish members. Still, he did not mind turning societal divisions to his advantage, at one point claiming Palm Beach was anti-Semitic in a zoning dispute because his members would be Jewish.
‘Put People in These Boxes’
Some who worked for Mr. Trump said he showed his true colors after growing comfortable with people. Jack O’Donnell, who was president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino and later wrote a scathing book about Mr. Trump, said the mogul would come into the casino and notice many African-Americans. “It’s a little dark tonight,” he would say.
According to Mr. O’Donnell, Mr. Trump said “laziness is a trait in blacks” and complained about an African-American accountant: “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.”
In an interview, Mr. O’Donnell said Mr. Trump trafficked in stereotypes. “He genuinely believes things like white people are smarter. And black people don’t want to live next to white, and white people don’t want to live next to black people,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “And he rationalizes that as, everybody thinks that, so it’s not racist.”
Mr. Trump has dismissed Mr. O’Donnell as “a loser” but at one point accepted the book’s description. “The stuff O’Donnell wrote about me is probably true,” he told Playboy. Later he disputed Mr. O’Donnell’s account, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “he made up stuff.”
Mr. Trump’s assumptions about people are based on what his biographer, Michael D’Antonio, called his “racehorse theory of human development.” Mr. D’Antonio said Mr. Trump told him a person’s genetic traits at birth were more important than anything learned over life.
“He likes to put people in these boxes and deal with them accordingly,” Mr. D’Antonio said. “It’s not universal and you can work your way out of the box. But working your way out of it is always personal. So one by one, black people can gain his confidence, but he does have this mentality about people as members of a group.”
‘The Blacks Love Me’
That helped shape Mr. Trump’s time on “The Apprentice,” where he was accused of giving short shrift to an African-American contestant, Randal Pinkett, who won the fourth season. During the finale, Mr. Pinkett said he was stunned when Mr. Trump, upon declaring him the winner, suggested he share the honor with the white woman he had just beaten.
“I would describe it as racist,” Mr. Pinkett said in an interview. “Not even racist overtones — racist.”
“Donald,” he said, “has constructed a world around him that reflects his identity and reflects his values. People who agree with him, people who celebrate him, people who he would consider to be his peers — wealthy white men.”
Mr. Pinkett added: “He’s completely out of touch with the realities of people not like him. Whether that’s people of color, ethnic minorities, immigrants — I mean, take your pick.”
Over the years, Mr. Trump has deflected criticism by citing friendships with black celebrities. In the 1980s, he became a fixture ringside in Atlantic City, befriending the boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson and the promoter Don King. He briefly owned a United States Football League team, leading to friendship with its star player, Herschel Walker.
As the hip-hop industry flourished in the 1990s and 2000s, rappers often used Mr. Trump’s name in lyrics as a symbol of wealth and flash. Along the way, he became friendly with Sean Combs, Snoop Dogg and Russell Simmons.
Mr. Trump boasted about the mention of his name in rap videos, asking one of the secretaries to find examples on YouTube and play them for guests. “The blacks love me,” he said proudly.
By 2015, now running for president, he stopped using “the” before describing ethnic groups. While some black celebrities stood by Mr. Trump, other relationships have soured because of his politics. Mr. Simmons, in an open letter that year, told his estranged friend to “stop fueling fires of hate.”
‘This Is Just Politics’
The foundation of Mr. Trump’s campaign was built on questioning the birth of the first African-American president. To Ms. Manigault Newman, a conversation she had with Mr. Trump about the “birther” campaign during a break in taping of “The Apprentice,” was the first time she saw him as overtly racial.
“He was bragging about it,” she said in an interview. “I asked him, ‘Why would you do this?’ He said, ‘This is just politics. This is what happens in politics, you do opposition research.’”
And yet like others in Mr. Trump’s orbit, Ms. Manigualt Newman did not find it so objectionable that she broke with him at the time. She spoke out about what she considered Mr. Trump’s racism only after she followed him to the White House and was subsequently fired.
In a campaign filled with racial controversy, Mr. Trump’s team sought to prevent a backlash. An ally in their efforts was the one they called Michael the Black Man.
Michael is Maurice Symonette, a man from Florida who once belonged to a violent religious cult and was charged but acquitted of two murders in the 1990s. During the campaign, he traveled the country to appear at Mr. Trump’s rallies holding a sign saying, “Blacks for Trump.”
Campaign officials said they made sure to position him behind the candidate. In October 2016, Mr. Trump noticed his sign. “Blacks for Trump,” he said. “Those signs are great. Thank you.”
Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, two African-American sisters and internet stars better known as Diamond and Silk, came to Mr. Trump’s attention after one of their videos went viral attacking Megyn Kelly, then a Fox host, for her aggressive questioning during a debate. They met Mr. Trump in December 2015 when he brought them onstage at a rally in Raleigh.
“I turn on my television one night and I see these two on television,” he told the crowd. He called them an “internet sensation” and implored them to entertain the crowd. “Do a little routine; come on,” he said. From then on, they became a regular opening act at his rallies.
Mr. Trump’s presidency has been filled with so many racial conflicts that many in Washington have become numb. After he made his “shithole countries” remark to lawmakers, some just shook their heads. “It wasn’t too much of a surprise,” said former Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and outspoken critic. “He had been consistently coming from this.”
By the time of Mr. Trump’s “go back” taunt and the “send her home” chants of a rally crowd a few days later, congressional Republicans were clearly discomfited but unwilling to publicly repudiate him.
“The president,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, “is not a racist.”
‘When the Riot Starts’
Mr. Trump’s vision of a black-against-white season of “The Apprentice” never came to pass. He pitched it to NBC executives, prompting a series of can-you-believe-this conversations inside the network, according to two executives involved. It was quickly rejected.
One former executive described his reaction as, “Uh, I don’t think so!”
The concept later came to fruition on a rival network, CBS, which aired a season of “Survivor” in 2006 in which contestants were initially grouped by ethnicity. The idea generated protests but was defended by the producer: Mark Burnett, who also created “The Apprentice.”
“He always told me that was Mark Burnett’s idea,” Ms. Manigault Newman recalled. “But Donald Trump was champing at the bit to do that.”
He sounded enthusiastic during his appearance on Mr. Stern’s show in 2005. Mr. Stern asked if there would be both light-skinned and dark-skinned contestants on the black team and Mr. Trump said it would be an “assortment.” As for the white team, Mr. Trump said it should include all blonds.
Even as he egged him on, Mr. Stern expressed more concern about the ramifications than Mr. Trump. “Wouldn’t that set off a racial war in this country?” he asked.
“See, actually, I don’t think it would,” Mr. Trump replied. “I think that it would be handled very beautifully by me. Because, as you know, I’m very diplomatic.”
Mr. Stern agreed. “I gotta tell you something, on some level it’s wrong,” he went on. “But I like it. I like it. I would watch.”
“You’d have to,” Ms. Quivers replied, “because you’d want to know when the riot starts.”