The Corner

Politics & Policy

Yes, Trump University Was a Massive Scam

Many people believe that higher education is a de facto scam. Trump University, Donald Trump’s real-estate institution, was a de jure one.

First thing first, Trump University was never a university. When the “school” was established in 2005, the New York State Education Department warned that it was in violation of state law for operating without a NYSED license. Trump ignored the warnings. (The institution is now called, ahem, “Trump Entrepreneur Initiative.”) Cue lawsuits.

Trump University is currently the defendant in three lawsuits — two class-action lawsuits filed in California, and one filed in New York by then-attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who told CNN’s New Day in 2013: “We started looking at Trump University and discovered that it was a classic bait-and-switch scheme. It was a scam, starting with the fact that it was not a university.”

Trump U “students” say the same. In his affidavit, Richard Hewson reported that he and his wife “concluded that we had paid over $20,000 for nothing, based on our belief in Donald Trump and the promises made at the [organization’s] free seminar and three-day workshop.” But “the whole thing was a scam.”

In fact, $20,000 is only a mid-range loss. The lead plaintiff in one of the California suits, yoga instructor Tarla Makaeff, says she was “scammed” out of $60,000 over the course of her time in Trump U.

How could that have happened? The New York suit offers a suggestion:

The free seminars were the first step in a bait and switch to induce prospective students to enroll in increasingly expensive seminars starting with the three-day $1495 seminar and ultimately one of respondents’ advanced seminars such as the “Gold Elite” program costing $35,000.

At the “free” 90-minute introductory seminars to which Trump University advertisements and solicitations invited prospective students, Trump University instructors engaged in a methodical, systematic series of misrepresentations designed to convince students to sign up for the Trump University three-day seminar at a cost of $1495.

The Atlantic, which got hold of a 41-page “Private & Confidential” playbook from Trump U, has attested to the same:

The playbook says almost nothing about the guest speaker presentations, the ostensible reason why people showed up to the seminar in the first place. Instead, the playbook focuses on the seminars’ real purpose: to browbeat attendees into purchasing expensive Trump University course packages.

To do that, instructors touted Trump’s own promises: that students would be “mentored” by “handpicked” real-estate experts, who would use Trump’s own real-estate strategies. Here’s Trump making the pitch himself:

In fact, Sherri isn’t alone. No student ever met the Donald. Despite hints from Trump University instructors that Trump was “going to be in town,” “often drops by,” or “might show up,” he never did. As Matt Labash recounted in The Weekly Standard: “At one seminar, attendees were told they’d get to have their picture taken with Trump. Instead, they ended up getting snapped with his cardboard cutout.” Bob, above, had such an “opportunity”:

There could be many more ads to come. The New York lawsuit alone represents some 5,000 victims.

Meanwhile, Trump — who maintains that Trump University was “a terrific school that did a fantastic job” — has tried to bully his opponents out of the suit. Lawyers for Tarla Makaeff have requested a protective order from the court “to protect her from further retaliation.” According to court documents, Trump has threatened to sue Makaeff personally, as well as her attorneys. He’s already brought a $100 million counterclaim against the New York attorney general’s office.

But it’s not working. Trump himself will have to take the witness stand in San Diego federal court sometime during the election season — and because of the timeline of the cases, a “President Trump” would be embroiled in these suits long after November.

Meanwhile, if there is any doubt that Trump U was designed to be a scam, The Atlantic puts that to rest with a few other choice tidbits from that “Private & Confidential” playbook used by Trump presenters:

Every university has admission standards and Trump University was no exception. The playbook spells out the one essential qualification in caps: “ALL PAYMENTS MUST BE RECEIVED IN FULL.” Basically, anyone with a valid credit card was “admitted” to Trump University. . . .

If a member of the media happened to approach the registration table, Trump staffers were instructed not to talk to him or her under any circumstance. “Reporters are rarely on your side and they are not sympathetic,” the playbook advises.

And:

At one point, the playbook advises Trump staffers: “If a district attorney arrives on the scene, contact the appropriate media spokesperson immediately.”

Sounds legit.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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