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On this date in 2004, Americans got a sneak preview of an ego that would shape the national zeitgeist a dozen years later. Only a footnote in the news at the time, in hindsight it provided an instructive glimpse into the mind of the New York real estate tycoon Donald Trump, who had been newly minted as a reality television show host on NBC.

"The Apprentice," which premiered Jan. 8, 2004, featured 16 contestants. At the end of the season, the audience was informed, one of them would be hired at an annual salary of $250,000 as an "executive vice-president" in Trump's real estate company. The "losers," to use one of Trump's favorite words, were dispatched from the show with the memorable phrase, "You're fired!"

Harsh words, yes, but less than four weeks into its airing the show's star was trying to make them a permanent part of the Trump brand. The Smoking Gun revealed 17 years ago today that Trump and his attorneys had filed a request with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office seeking ownership of "You're fired!"

Attempting to patent a common phrase in the English language is audacious, although some have done it successfully. In Trump's case, he seems to have been motivated more by profit than linguistic hubris: His organization had already licensed expensive T-shirts that were on sale in Bloomingdale's with the slogan emblazoned on the chest. But Trump's cheeky legal gambit ran into another problem besides common English usage: It came in the form of suburban Chicago retailer Susan Brenner, whose ceramics studio and pottery store was named You're Fired.

"Every person who walks into store now says, ‘Oh, you're copying Donald Trump,'" Brenner told the Chicago Tribune. "And I say, ‘No, he's copying me.'"

In the end, the patent office rejected Trump's claim even as "The Apprentice" provided him with an unlikely steppingstone into national politics. The episode also serves as a reminder of why, after the votes were counted in 2020, Trump was unwilling -- and seemed unable -- to absorb the two-word verdict rendered by voters that would end his tenure in the White House.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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