Thirteen years before Richard Branson called President Donald Trump “an embarrassment for the world,” Trump sent the Virgin Group founder a letter telling him that his new television show was destined to fail, and that he questioned the legitimacy of his billionaire status.
In Branson’s new memoir, “Finding My Virginity,” Branson published the letter and his response in full. Trump’s letter, dated November 12, 2004, is below.
I see that you are trying to take me on with your nasty comments, much the same way as Mark Cuban had tried. As you know, Mark went down in flames, his show was unceremoniously cancelled, never to return again. In any event, now that I have watched your show, I wish you came to me and asked my advice — I would have told you not to bother. You have no television persona and, as I found out with others a long time ago, if it’s not there there’s not a thing in the world you can do about it.
At least your dismal ratings can now allow you to concentrate on your airline which, I am sure, needs every ounce of your energy. It is obviously a terrible business and I can’t imagine, with fuel prices etc., that you can be doing any better in it than anyone else. Like television, you should try to get out of the airline business too, as soon soon as possible! Actually, I wonder out loud how you can be anywhere close to a billionaire and be in that business. Perhaps the title of your show, The Rebel Billionaire, is misleading?
In any event, do not use me in order to promote your rapidly sinking show — you are a big boy, try doing it by yourself!
Donald J. Trump”
In November 2004, Branson’s reality competition show, “The Rebel Billionaire,” had debuted to poor ratings. After “The Apprentice,” NBC’s reality show built around Trump, became a runaway hit in early 2004 — with an average of around 20 million viewers — the other networks looked to capitalize on the dramatic combination of “Survivor” and the business world that NBC’s series nailed.
ABC tried a six-episode series that fall with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called “The Benefactor” that was received poorly and received low ratings in 2004 of around 5 million viewers. It was canceled shortly before Fox’s attempt with Branson pulled any barely more viewers and was also lampooned by critics.
It turned out that a charismatic billionaire host like Cuban or Branson wasn’t enough to engage viewers. Trump relished their failures, which he interpreted as validation of his own series’ success, and made his thoughts known to the public. While the ABC and Fox shows were flopping, the second season of “The Apprentice” drew around 16 million viewers per episode.
The day before “The Rebel Billionaire” premiered on November 9, Branson appeared on Neil Cavuto’s Fox News show. Cavuto told Branson that he had seen allegations that Branson’s show was a copycat of Trump’s, and asked him how he was different from Trump as a businessman.
“I think that people will find that the two things are completely and utterly different,” Branson said, adding that he and Trump had “a very different approach to the way we run our businesses.”
“I mean, I think Donald is very much the suited man, who, you know, has his boardrooms and I think a sort of fairly ’80s approach to business,” Branson said. “I’d like to think that we have a 21st century approach to business. I’m out and about. Never sit behind a desk.”
Two days after “The Rebel Billionaire” had a poor debut, Trump was ready to talk.
“I don’t know the guy, but I think he’s got zero personality and zero television persona,” Trump told the New York Post.
According to Branson’s book, the two had actually had lunch at Trump Tower in the early 1990s, at Trump’s invitation, after Branson met Trump’s daughter Ivanka at the Business Traveler Awards in London. In the book, Branson wrote that he didn’t hear from Trump until the battle of the TV shows, but they met at least once more before then, as Trump was a guest at Virgin Mobile’s US launch party in 2002.
Trump also told the Post in that interview that he found “The Rebel Billionaire” to be a misleading title, because he doubted Branson was worth that much.
“I’m a major billionaire because it’s easy to add up my stuff. But his airline has got to be sucking him dry,” Trump said, referring to Virgin Atlantic and the bankruptcies plaguing the airline industry after 9/11.
The day after trashing Branson in the Post, Trump decided to write him the personal letter from Trump Tower.
According to Branson’s account in “Finding My Virginity,” he sent a restrained reply five days later.
“I have enjoyed our time we have spent together and would not denigrate you personally,” Branson wrote, saying he told interviewers they had different values, namely on whether or not vengeance should be a motivating factor in business. He also said his billionaire status was confirmed by the shares he sold and owned in his British and Australian airlines.
“Perhaps you could re-read what I have said to date and decide whether it’s worth us remaining as friends — or alternatively, you adding me to your list of enemies! It’s your call,” Branson wrote in signing off.
The next time Branson heard from Trump, he wrote, was in September 2015, when Trump was a Republican presidential candidate. Branson said he received an envelope from Trump with a Los Angeles Times article from a few days earlier. It was about the competition among Branson, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to develop the first commercially viable private aerospace company. Trump had taken a Sharpie and drawn an arrow pointed at Branson’s photograph, writing, “RICHARD — GREAT!”
Branson said ignored this note, as well as the invitations he said followed. As he said in his book, “I was one businessperson his divisive rhetoric and bullying behavior would not impress.”