When Tom Arnold opens the big wooden door of his house in Beverly Hills on a Tuesday in late spring, he’s wearing a blue T-shirt with a Superman “S” logo on it. On the floor behind him is a pink, toddler-size Minnie Mouse car, property of his two-year-old daughter, Quinn. “Hey, buddy,” he says, out of breath from his flight down the stairs, and still sweaty, post-shower, from his morning cardio. He lost 90 pounds five years ago, when his son, Jax, was born, aiming to stick around for the family he’s built with his very patient fourth wife, Ashley. Since then, he’s gained enough back to land at a football-coach burliness — still not bad for a 59-year-old who once blew a $10 million Jenny Craig sponsorship by gaining more weight than he was supposed to lose. (Or maybe it was SlimFast — he tells the story both ways.)
We were supposed to be headed over to a taping of his friend Jim Jefferies’ Comedy Central show around now, but not for the first time in the world of Tom Arnold, something went wrong. “I did a bad tweet,” he says, walking through his kitchen toward his memorabilia-packed man cave of an office. It was, indeed, not good: He used the words “suck racist dick” in connection with black conservative figure Candace Owens. The right-wing press pounced. Arnold apologized, but he’s still too radioactive for Comedy Central. “Which made me laugh,” he says, “because Trump fuckin’ wins again on racism.”
Arnold parks himself at his desk, facing a TV tuned to CNN. Behind him is an Al Hirschfeld caricature of his younger self; on an opposite wall is a self-portrait drawn by Howard Stern, with a note thanking Arnold for being a good guest. In one corner is a framed tie David Letterman gave him when he showed up without one; in another, a cel from The Rosey & Buddy Show, a short-lived cartoon he and his ex-wife Roseanne Barr made. “None of it means too much to me except the pictures of my kids,” he says, his voice a familiar sandpaper rumble.
He can hardly sit down without sending a leg into twitchy overdrive: “Shaky Tom,” Barr called him. He says he’s “on the spectrum” (he’s not big on eye contact) and has ADHD. The Ritalin his parents snuck into his food calmed him as a kid; cocaine did the same for him as an adult. He’s done an awful lot of drugs, was in rehab just last year. He is, in all, a frantic, lovable, weirdly charismatic mess, “a crazy person,” by his own half-joking description.
He’s having some financial problems, had to refinance his house, sell his Warhol. He doesn’t always get his facts straight. His anecdotes can, at times, be hard to follow, and harder to verify. His acting career, fueled for many years by the triumph of 1994’s True Lies, is not at its peak, though he does have a recurring role on NCIS: New Orleans (he’s currently wearing black khakis purloined from the set: “They fit!”). Again, he once married Roseanne Barr. (When they split, Letterman held up a fake book on-air: “I’m Pretty Much Screwed, by Tom Arnold.”)
These days, in between stand-up gigs, Arnold is on a reckless, friendship-straining, marriage-testing, one-man mission to save the world from a former acquaintance who is now president of the United States, at whom he’s leveled a long and growing series of wild accusations. His claims of seeing Apprentice outtakes where Trump allegedly uses a racial slur were just the beginning. In September, Viceland will debut The Hunt for the Trump Tapes With Tom Arnold, a gonzo reality show about Arnold’s quest: Each episode will focus on a different alleged “tape,” from pee to Apprentice.
It’s not just a show. Arnold is consumed with his hunt, fueled by an apparent mix of moral outrage, general obsessiveness and a fair amount of free time. Longtime friend Arnold Schwarzenegger has a simpler explanation, though: He told Politico that Tom is just trying to reclaim his past “notoriety.”
Tom really did once know Trump a bit, really did run in some of the same showbiz circles. They were, after all, Arnold says, at the same “level of Hollywood.” But the anomaly that is the Trump White House has upended our cultural cosmos, pulling unlikely figures closer to the center of events than a saner timeline might allow. So amid the madness of 2018, the idea of Tom Arnold as a figure of destiny, a man of consequence, begins to seem plausible. Plausible enough for basic cable, anyway.
Another unlikely figure back in the spotlight, of course, is Arnold’s ex-wife, who embraced MAGA-dom with the same fervor she once applied to radical feminism. Barr had her own rise and fall earlier this year with a revamped, ratings-topping, vaguely Trumpist reboot of her show, which earned her a congratulatory phone call from the president before she self-immolated with a racist tweet. (“Turns out this whole election was an elaborate proxy war between Tom Arnold and Roseanne,” a podcaster named Jesse Case tweeted.)
At the start of their 1994 divorce battle, Barr accused Arnold of domestic abuse. She retracted the accusation, then made it again. He’s always denied it. Their union ended after Barr became convinced, correctly, that Arnold was attracted to their young assistant. Barr set up a fake three-way marriage ceremony on Letterman, and even Arnold wasn’t sure what was going on: “Is Roseanne fucking with me?” There was, Arnold claims, at least one actual three-way encounter.
“If that loser can become president,” Arnold says, “this loser can take him down.”
When Arnold got word last year that Barr was reviving Roseanne, he was somehow naive enough to imagine he might be able to participate — after all, she had invited him to her roast in 2012. Instead, he says he learned that his agent had signed Barr as a client without telling him — effectively leaving him with no agent at all. He also began to get the distinct sense that he was unwelcome on any ABC show as long as Roseanne was running.
But when it all comes crashing down, he sends an e-mail to the agent, cc’ing me. It was just a subject line: “Want me back yet?”
So: is Tom Arnold the madman hero we didn’t know we needed, a Trump-derangement-syndrome cautionary tale, or some confounding mix of both? Over the months we stay in touch, he supplies evidence to support all three scenarios.
Arnold first got to know Trump in 1990, taping an HBO comedy special with Barr at Trump’s Castle in Atlantic City. Arnold was the opening act, leading one critic to accuse Barr of “shoehorning her thin-skinned, fat-bodied husband” into the show. Trump himself cameoed, apparently at his own suggestion, chauffeuring Barr onstage in a Duesenberg. Trump and Arnold would cross paths again over the next couple of decades — including an evening when, Arnold says, they visited the Playboy Mansion together, where Trump allegedly met with a girlfriend and also lost a shoe in the pool. In 2010, the future president and his producer Mark Burnett tried unsuccessfully to get Arnold to come on board for Trump’s reality show. “I really want you on Celebrity Apprentice,” Burnett wrote in an e-mail Arnold shared with me; Arnold says Burnett and Trump also called his house. “It’s not a compliment,” says Arnold, “to myself or Donald Trump that we know the same people.”
When I push Arnold for the full context of the alleged Apprentice slur, he claims that Trump was asked on the set about heading to Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse for dinner, and that Trump responded, “I don’t want to go uptown with all those n——.” (White House representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) It came out casually, Arnold claims, “like he’s said it a billion times before.” Later, I realize that Sammy’s Roumanian has only one location, way downtown, and I press Arnold on the maddening discrepancy. He corrects himself: It was the Harlem Italian restaurant Rao’s, he says, and Trump was asked about meeting Bo Dietl up there. (It is true that Dietl, the former-NYPD-detective-turned-media-figure, is a Rao’s devotee, and Trump has reportedly been there at least once.) Arnold also alleges that Trump calls his son Eric a “retard” in the tape, and that he uses the “c-word,” which, if ever proved, would probably be of interest to Samantha Bee.
By June, Arnold is feuding with the Trump Tapes producers, even as filming chugs along. “They’re fucking idiots,” he tells me casually, more than once. He adds that they’ve all grown to “fucking hate” him, and cheerfully shares tales of screaming matches with his showrunner. By August, they’re not on speaking terms, after a backstage argument at the Television Critics Association. “Get the fuck out of my face,” Arnold says he told him, just before their press conference to launch the show.
As Arnold becomes estranged from the people behind the show, even wondering whether “they are just stupid or complicit,” he sends more and more information my way. (Tensions do eventually ease to the point where he can finish the show.) “It’s down to me & you,” he texts at one point. I protest that I’m profiling him, not joining the investigation. But Arnold’s gravitational field is strong. I stay skeptical but get sucked in, spending late nights sifting through Apprentice crew credits.
As with so many moments in his big, weird life, it started with some stuff he did while he was high. On October 10th, 2016, three days after The Washington Post published the Access Hollywood tape that introduced the world to the phrase “grab ’em by the pussy,” Arnold tweeted the following: “Some R voting 4 him because he really is like that & worse. A man who casually uses the ‘N’ word, mic-ed up, on camera. Ask Apprentice crew.” In another tweet, an hour later, he made it clear that he was referring to outtakes from the show. At that point, all hell failed to break loose. Similar, near-contemporaneous claims from Bill Pruitt, a former Apprentice producer, got more attention — including a denial from the Trump campaign — before fizzling out. (A source once involved with the show told me that Pruitt got death threats at the time. Pruitt has had little further to say on the matter and didn’t respond to interview requests.)
Arnold’s tale slowly began to draw more notice. He says that shortly before the election, he got a call from a Hollywood agent who told him he was “sitting next to Hillary Clinton” and that “the fate of the free world” was in his hands, if only he could produce the footage. But Arnold didn’t have it. All he ever had, if you believe him, was a long-expired temporary online link to a three-minute highlight reel of unflattering outtakes, allegedly circulated back in 2015. “It was like somebody put together a ‘fuck this guy’ [compilation],” Arnold says. “Everyone has one, on every show.” He got more specific about the supposed outtakes in a radio interview soon after the election; this time, the story was picked up everywhere, and he had to explain again, over and over, that he didn’t have the tapes.
As Arnold continued to kick up a fuss about Trump, some heavy-duty journalists slipped into his orbit — even Carl Bernstein, who left him an irked voicemail after Arnold let slip on Twitter that “Watergate-level” journalists were on the case. Along the way, Arnold became a repository for oft-unverifiable Trump rumors, of which there are no shortage. He may have been the first, for instance, to publicly mention a supposed “Trump elevator tape,” well before the Daily Beast confirmed that TMZ had discussed buying such a thing; the gossip site reportedly dropped the matter after learning that Trump Tower elevators don’t have security cameras. Arnold says they had the wrong building, and is still after the tape.
The whole time, Arnold — who had first gotten sober in 1989 after a nasty coke and alcohol habit — was addicted to Xanax and falling apart. As a teenager in his native Iowa, Arnold had a reputation among his friends as a fearless badass: He got into fistfights with cops, more than once, which was a thing you could survive if you were white and an Iowan in the Eighties. But he wasn’t really fearless. He just didn’t care if he died. His dad threw him out of the house at age 17, never wondering why Arnold was behaving so badly. The answer, Arnold says, was as simple as it was awful: From ages four to seven, he had been subjected to sexual abuse by a neighbor who threatened to kill his family if he ever told anyone. Trapped in his neighbor’s house, Arnold would imagine someone coming to save him — Superman, maybe.
As Arnold’s son, Jax, approached his fourth birthday, the milestone triggered something in Arnold’s psyche, overwhelming him with anxiety. For victims, he was told, it’s a reaction both common and perilous. A doctor prescribed him Xanax, and his intake got out of control. In the spring of 2017, Arnold’s friends held an intervention, and he shipped off to rehab at Crossroads. After learning that Chris Cornell, whom he’d gotten to know in certain meetings, died while taking similar drugs, he got all the more serious about his recovery. “My whole thing,” says Arnold, “was getting back to my kids.”
When he did return, “I did a little inventory,” he says, sitting under the sun at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge restaurant. “I went through everything I said in the fall about Trump. Everything I said publicly and privately, just to make sure that it wasn’t the benzos talking. It was all true. Sadly.”
The anxiety hasn’t fully subsided. Even in the past year, sober, he says, “I’ve had moments where I felt like running out a window. Just running.” But at Crossroads, he began trauma therapy, which continues to this day. The therapist takes him back to that room, and then helps him get out. “You just don’t have this fucking wild animal stalking you anymore,” says Arnold. “This dark feeling that you could be mauled. You’re walking around lighter.”
On some subconscious level, he says, Trump reminds him of his abuser, which makes him all the more embarrassed by his behavior around the future president. “You feel special when he likes you,” he says, “because that fucker doesn’t like a lot of people.”
Arnold has been public about a painkiller addiction after a nasty 2008 motorcycle accident, but he has one more drug story to tell. In 2015, he spent a couple of months in Moscow, shooting a movie called Maximum Impact. He stayed at the same Ritz-Carlton where Trump spent a famous night, and Arnold presumes there were cameras. So he’d like to pre-emptively reveal the story of “three bad days.” He was lonely and in pain from his latest hair transplant. (He’s had a bunch of them, and may be the only celebrity to admit it. His hair looks great.) He kept trying to get painkillers, and a guy on set would say, “No pain pills. Want pot or cocaine?”
In the end, Arnold embarked on an epic coke bender, somehow making it home on the plane despite carrying some 15 grams of cocaine on an international flight. “I’m not making light of how traumatic it was for Ashley,” Arnold says in an e-mail, “and my life is a living amends to my wife and children, but how frightened am I supposed to be of the Apprentice guy or his shirtless pony-riding man-crush when I’ve woken up from a 90-hour international cocaine psychosis eyeball-to-eyeball with the woman who has given me everything?” Fair enough.
In general, Arnold’s crusade hasn’t been good for his relationships. “Nobody wants to have their name associated with me, believe me,” he says. It’s even strained his friendship with Schwarzenegger, which began on the set of True Lies. Arnold had a rough night in December 2016 at Schwarzenegger’s Christmas party, where the attendees included “all these fuckin’ conservative Republicans that voted for Trump. I had one friend say, ‘We’re from Austria, Tom, and we know Hitler, and [Hillary is] worse,’ ” he recalls. “I swear to God. I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ I got into almost a fistfight because somebody I love said that to me.”
Then, Arnold says, a longtime Trump associate stood up and called Trump “the worst human being I’ve ever met in my life.” At that point, Arnold claims, he turned to Apprentice producer Mark Burnett, who was in attendance, and begged him for access to the show’s archives. “He goes, ‘Nothing is going to be worse than the grab-’em-by-the-pussy thing,’ ” says Arnold. “He goes, ‘Michael Cohen calls me every day. He wants all the tape. I won’t let him have it. I won’t let you have it.’ He holds up a picture of his kid as Trump’s ringbearer. ‘I can’t, mate.’ ” (Burnett’s representative said he was unavailable for comment.)
Around that point, Arnold made an uncomfortable exit from the party and found himself waiting at the valet stand next to Clint Eastwood. “ ‘Oh, Tom,’ ” Arnold says Eastwood told him, “ ‘Trump is a bonehead. You know the worst part about runnin’ for mayor? If you win, then you gotta be mayor.’ ”
Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, was at that point feeling optimistic about taking over for Trump as host of The Apprentice. “He’s gonna fuck you,” Arnold warned him, accurately. In June, Arnold playfully ambushed Schwarzenegger near his gym, camera crew in tow, to get him to appear on his show. In footage shared with me, Schwarzenegger is taken aback but can’t help being amused at Arnold’s audacity. He shifts into politician mode, chiding Arnold that he needs to root for Trump’s success. But he does ask, “Have you found the tapes?”
“No,” Arnold admits.
Schwarzenegger roars with laughter. “How long have you been trying to go after those tapes?” he says. “You are not a good spy!”
In late June, Arnold and I run into Michael Cohen, and things get weird. I meet Arnold one evening in New York’s Regency Hotel, where he’s staying while conducting interviews for his Vice show. We’re chatting on a banquette in the luxe lobby when we come to the topic of Cohen, who was known to be staying at the hotel.
At that moment, Arnold’s eyes bug out. “He’s literally right fucking there,” he says, bolting up. Michael Cohen is, indeed, right fucking there, trailed by his bespectacled teenage son.
Arnold strides over, shakes Cohen’s hand. Cohen comes off as soft-spoken — gentle, even, with a strong Brooklyn accent. If he was once the pit bull we saw on TV interviews (“Says who?”), he seems, for the moment, defanged. Arnold and Cohen chat amiably, mostly about Arnold’s friend Steve Tisch, whose family owns the hotel.
“If you ever need anything . . .” Arnold says.
“I appreciate it,” Cohen replies. Arnold asks him for a picture, and he happily agrees. Arnold hands me his phone, and I take a shot of them smiling together — the man seeking the tapes, and the man who knows where they are, assuming they exist. As Cohen prepares to leave, we could have asked about the supposed elevator tape. We could have asked anything. Instead: “Are you doing OK?” “Yeah,” Cohen replies. “It’s a rough gig. The country is very divided.”
Within seconds, Arnold tweets the picture. Cohen will, in the following weeks, make it clear he’s turned on Trump, but posing with Arnold — who once received a legal warning from Cohen’s associate Keith Davidson — is an early, blatant message. Arnold realizes it right away, as do some savvy reporters. He ends up on CNN and MSNBC, in segments that have friends calling his wife to ask if he’s OK. He goofs around, staying silent for an agonizing 25 seconds of live television when CNN’s Poppy Harlow asks him if Cohen has flipped. (Someone posts it on YouTube as “The worst interview, ever!”) Arnold also exaggerates his association with Cohen, spinning that brief encounter into a plan to “spend the weekend with Michael Cohen.” It’s the first time I catch him in a lie.
Aghast, I ask Arnold if he’s somehow had more contact with Cohen since the evening we met. He tells me they’ve been texting, and I ask to see the texts. To his credit, Arnold shares them, and what they reveal manages to make me feel bad for Cohen: Pretty much every text I see consists of the lawyer begging Arnold to stop lying about him for the sake of his family. Arnold blames the whole thing on “trolling Trump” and says he’s always honest with me.
Arnold’s tactics are, to say the least, unjournalistic: He’s willing to say things of dubious accuracy in the interests of bull-goring. He wants to move the story forward, to win, whatever it takes. In that moment, he reminds me of someone.
All that said, given the increasing visibility of Arnold’s attacks, it seems notable — maybe even meaningful — that a president who always punches back has yet to mention his old acquaintance in a single tweet. And Arnold seems to come away from that weekend even more determined to prove his credibility. “I’m getting you a tape, fucker,” he texts.
Spoiler alert: As of press time, no tape. But there are some tantalizing moments, even as Arnold keeps opening new investigative fronts. (“I figured out who ‘Q’ is!” he tells me in August, launching into a theory I don’t understand at all.) HuffPost drops a report on the elevator-tape hunt, respectfully mentioning Arnold’s role. And his TV appearances, shambolic as they are, do draw people out — including a legitimate, very highly placed source we both start talking to: “Tom is on to something,” the source tells me, before Arnold permanently alienates him with an overeager tweet. (“I fucked up,” says Arnold.) Another source, a longtime reality-show insider, tells me that well before Arnold’s tale of the outtakes, he heard talk of an identical-sounding highlight reel.
Most of the Apprentice crew members I reach out to don’t respond, and those who do have never heard of the reel, or of Trump using racial slurs — though they don’t rule out the possibility. But producers for Arnold’s show apparently have better luck.
According to a Viceland document I obtain, which doesn’t list names, the supposed Apprentice employees they spoke to bolstered reports of on-set sexism previously denied by Trump reps. (“Trump rated women on a number scale and by the size of their breasts.”) “Producers were in constant conversation about how to produce [sic] Trump away from race,” one says. Another, “crew member No. 7,” is quoted as saying, “Producers did everything they could to hide Trump’s racism. . . . I heard Trump say the n-word multiple times.” All seven purported sources allegedly got scared and never went on camera.
Meanwhile, sources lead us to a former employee who, based on his position, could be key to the Apprentice mystery. Arnold’s sure that the guy has tapes, and it seems possible. The former staffer doesn’t respond to multiple messages (and makes his Instagram private), but Arnold is convinced he’ll get through someday. And if he does, he says, he’ll pass him on to a particular investigative journalist. “He can have the glory,” Arnold e-mails. “And everyone can still say I’m an asshole!!” He adds a smiley face.