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Hard Sell: The Potential Political Consequences Of The Trump University Documents

Donald Trump speaks at a Trump University news conference in 2005, as then-Trump University President Michael Sexton looks on.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
Donald Trump speaks at a Trump University news conference in 2005, as then-Trump University President Michael Sexton looks on.

Trump University was no university the way most people think of one.

There was no degree at the end of four years, no traditional accreditation that goes along with an institution of higher learning. Instead, as revealed by unsealed court documents released Tuesday, it was something that more resembled the way timeshares are sold — get people in the door and persuade them to buy for as much as possible.

Sworn testimony from a former Trump U. manager said he believed it was a "fraudulent scheme" that "preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money." The Trump campaign — and the candidate himself — fire back that there are plenty of positive testimonials from people who went through the program.

Trump has even lashed out on the campaign trail at the presiding judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, appointedby President Obama in 2011. Trump has derided him as a "hater" and also noted that he believed Curiel was "Mexican." (Curiel was born in Indiana and went to Indiana University's law school.)

The political consequences could be immense. A trial is set for November in one of the cases. That means there could be a situation in which a president-elect has to testify — on trial in a fraud case.

To be clear: Being rich or in business is certainly no disqualifier for being president. In fact, that is more often an asset for politicians. There have been plenty of wealthy men who have occupied the Oval Office and running a business can show competence and solid managerial judgment. (And Trump will likely be facing a flawed candidate in Hillary Clinton, who has the cloud of an FBI investigation hanging over her head — though it's unlikely she will be indicted, as NPR's Carrie Johnson has reported.)

But the Trump U. documents give Democrats fodder to frame Trump the way they did Mitt Romney in 2012 — as someone who's part of a "rigged" system and took advantage of average people.

What's In The Documents?

Trump is a party to the suit, as he was a 93 percent owner, and the enterprise was designed around him, his brand and his business acumen. Trump U. "Playbooks," which were part of the court documents, show the principal goal was to sell, not educate.

The idea was to get "buyers" in the door for a 90-minute seminar, where Trump U. sales associates used high-pressure tactics to try and get prospects to shell out as much as they could — $1,500 for a three-day event, then anywhere from $10,000 to $35,000 for bronze, silver and gold packages.

The big thing buyers/students got from the gold package was three-day, in-person consulting from an expert. (The Democratic opposition research group American Bridge posted the court documents Tuesday. NPR has verified the documents and obtained independent copies.)

Experts and speakers were supposed to have been "hand picked" by Trump and "one of Donald Trump's top instructors."

But he admitted in a December deposition — in the heat of the GOP primary and before the first votes were cast in Iowa — reported by the Washington Post, that he had not hand-picked them — or even knew them, really. Some of the names sounded "familiar, but it's too many years," he said.

Not A Real University

The "school" was created in Trump's image — from Trump-branded promotional materials to speakers who talked about how to get ahead the "Trump way" right down to the theme for The Apprentice that was mandated to play before speakers took the stage.

Doesn't sound like college? As PolitiFacthas noted, "It wasn't a real university — and had to change its name to Trump Entrepreneur Institute because of that. It was largely a seminar program that promised to teach its students the real estate secrets that turned Trump into a billionaire."

The name had to be changed after the New York State Department of Education objected in 2005 to it using "university" because it was "not actually chartered as one" or licensed to instruct or train students. All that was detailed in a March 2015 New York State Supreme Court decision:

"[T]he New York State Department of Education (SED) notified Donald Trump individually, [Trump University President Michael] Sexton, and Trump University that they were violating the New York Education Law by using the word 'University' when it was not actually chartered as one. Likewise, SED notified these 23 respondents that Trump University was also violating the Education law because it lacked a license to offer student instruction or training in New York State. SED stated, however, that Trump University would not be subject to the license requirement if it had no physical presence in New York State, moved the business organization outside of New York, and ceased running live programs in the State. In June 2005, Sexton informed SED that Trump University would merge its operation into a new Delaware LLC, and would indeed cease holding live programming in New York State."

What About Those Good Reviews?

The Trump team defense centers on the fact that Trump U. got good reviews from most participants. The Trump campaign released a video Wednesday with testimonials from happy participants.

The documents show that if there was anything less than a 90 percent positive score, that associates could be reprimanded. That could lead some associates to lean on participants to write positive ones.

That's exactly what happened in some cases, The New York Times reported in March.

'Cashing In' On The Housing Crisis

Something Democrats will likely home in on when making the case against Trump is how Trump U. advised people to profit off the housing collapse.


"Trump University promised in 2009 that its 'Fast Track to Foreclosure Investing' would teach students how to take advantage of the crisis, according to university documents unsealed last week in a lawsuit against the now-defunct program. ... A Trump University advertisement released in the case said one of its free investor workshops would explain how to 'Cash in on one of the greatest property liquidations in history!'

"Trump University instructors were to teach students how to 'capitalize without harm' and find ways for 'sellers to move on without shame,' according to a December 2008 summary of the seminar."

And Trump U. made it all sound so easy:

Sales associates were instructed to overcome objections, or "excuses," even if "buyers" were unsure and wanted to talk to their spouses...

...or didn't want to take on more debt:

The Politics

Trump's likely opponent this fall, Clinton, has an FBI investigation hanging over her head. An independent inspector general's report found that what Clinton did was unusual, out of step with State Department protocols and that she did not ask permission for the atypical setup.

Dueling scandals and, frankly, personality, are part of the reason both candidates have record unfavorable ratings heading into a general election in which voter outrage is already rampant.

For the cynics, the choice seems to be between a calculating pol with something to hide and a scam artist.

But Clinton's emails have been pored over for more than a year. (Here was my report from April of 2015on whether what she did was legal and which laws might be in question.)

The Trump U. fraud cases, the documents and the former "students" are only now starting to get real scrutiny.

This election's already become something of a referendum on Trump, rather than one principally about President Obama's former secretary of state, who is trying to succeed him.

Voters will have to decide not only if Trump's policies and temperament are suitable to be president of the Unites States, but also whether they approve of tactics he tried to use to make money — with lots of new details in hand.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.