Late last year, on December 10, Donald Trump briefly slipped away from the public eye to give a closed-door, pretrial deposition in a class-action lawsuit filed against him in California, Yahoo News reports, relating to the now-defunct Trump University.
The lawsuit revolves around the school Trump launched in 2005, promising to turn “anyone into a successful real estate investor,” but which former students now say was little more than a bad “infomercial” that scammed them out of $60,000 for a bad seminar in a hotel ballroom. The lead plaintiff, Tarla Makaeff, a California yoga instructor, has accused Trump of threatening to ruin her financially for bringing the suit.
“None of it is true. No one was defrauded,” Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s general counsel, told Yahoo News last year. “The people that take these classes go into it with their eyes open. A lot of people did very well [with Trump University]. A lot of people enjoyed it. But like everything else, if people don’t put the effort into it, they don’t succeed.”
But New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has also sued Trump, alleging in a $40 million lawsuit, in 2013, that the “university” was never accredited, awarded no degrees, and was essentially “an elaborate bait-and-switch.”
“No one, no matter how rich or famous they are, has a right to scam hardworking New Yorkers,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “Anyone who does should expect to be held accountable.” The attorney general said that Trump appeared in advertisements making “false promises” that persuaded more than 5,000 people around the country, including 600 New Yorkers, “to spend tens of thousands of dollars they couldn’t afford for lessons they never got.”
In 2014, the Atlantic reported on a 41-page “Private & Confidential” playbook, printed on “Trump University” letterhead, that detailed the choreography for selling people on the allegedly fraudulent school.
The playbook, prepared for Trump University seminars in Texas in 2009, might be summed up in one word: sell. Or as the playbook puts it on page 23, “Sell, Sell, Sell!” The playbook posits a “Minimum Sales Goal” of $72,500 per seminar, meaning that the seminars leaders needed to convince at least 20 percent of attendees to sign up for three-day seminars costing $1,495.
Under the heading “Registration Goal & Procedure,” Trump U. staffers are instructed to “Welcome attendees and build a Trump-esque atmosphere,” “Disarm any uncertainty,” and “Set the hook.” The hook in this case consists of selling seminar attendees on increasingly costly additional courses, culminating in the “Trump Gold Elite” package, for a cool $34,995. Pricey, yes, but the playbook notes that the list price of the Trump Gold Elite package is $49,415, a savings to students of 29 percent. Even before Trump University students had made their first real-estate transaction, they had managed to get themselves a deal, of sorts.
The seminars were usually held in hotel meeting rooms, and the playbook spells out in painstaking detail how the space should be set up. Chairs should be close enough together to give attendees sufficient space, while still “bringing attendees out of their comfort zone.” Room temperature should be set at “no more than 68 degrees.” A sales corral was to be set up within close proximity to the door, “so that attendees need to walk past sales tables in order to exit.” It was at the sales tables that Trump U. staffers would hawk the pricey seminar packages.
As soon as attendees entered the registration area, the song “For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays greeted them. The tune had been used as the theme to Trump’s reality television shows “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice,” presumably because of the song’s incessant chant of “Money, money, money, money...money!”
For his part, Trump will likely have to take the witness stand in the California case, in San Diego, late this spring or early summer—the final pretrial conference is set for May 6, and court documents show the judge wants the case to move forward.
Meanwhile, in the New York case, Crain’s reports that a state judge has ruled that Trump is personally liable for damages, to be determined at a later time, resulting from the fact that Trump University lacked the required licenses. Trump’s lawyers have been ordered to take depositions from about 5,000 former students for whom the attorney general is seeking restitution.