“Trump University was a fraudulent scheme… it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money.” — Ronald Schnackenberg, former Trump University sales manager
Imagine you are back in the worst years of the Great Recession. You are struggling to make ends meet, and a world-famous businessman promises to solve your money problems by sending his “handpicked” experts to teach you how to become a successful real estate investor. All you have to do is enroll in his brand-new “university,” which he promises will give you a better education than the country’s best business schools.
Many people took this offer, giving up to $35,000 to an unaccredited institution based on a lie. The institution was Trump University, and the man behind the lies, the false promises, the exploitation of people’s most basic worries and dreams, was current Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Before victims all over the country lost thousands of dollars on worthless courses taught by unqualified instructors, before New York authorities declared Trump University a scam, before multiple class action suits were filed against Trump for fraud and deceptive marketing, about 10,000 people gave Trump their money. Here’s how the Republican nominee got rich by manipulating Americans:
Step 1: Identify Potential Income Sources
That’s what his “students” were to Trump — walking checkbooks. And it didn’t matter whether they could actually afford to pay for courses or not. One former sales rep gave chilling testimony about being reprimanded by his bosses for refusing to upsell a couple who would have had to use disability income and loans against their own property to pay for a seminar.
Sales reps were also instructed to target seniors and people who were hurting financially. They were told to collect information about the vulnerabilities of potential buyers that they could use to push people into making purchases, such as “a single parent of three children that may need money for food.”
“Trump University was only interested in selling every person the most expensive seminars they could possibly buy on credit.” — Corinne Sommer, former Trump University events manager
Step 2: Shame Them Into Giving You Their Money
Ask any pick-up artist, or certain Bachelorette contestants (looking at you, Chad) — negging can be a powerful emotional manipulation to get people to do what you want. Trump University sales reps were instructed to tear vulnerable people down to convince them to purchase more Trump University seminars.
When people expressed doubt about buying into the program, sales representatives were instructed to work off of a sample script and berate them about their financial status:
“Do you enjoy seeing everyone else but yourself in their dream houses and driving their dreams cars with huge checking accounts? Those people saw an opportunity, and didn’t make excuses, like what you’re doing now.”
“You’ve had your entire adult life to accomplish your financial goals. I’m looking at your profile and you’re not even close to where you need to be, much less where you want to be.”
So if those people didn’t have the cash to pay their tuition? Trump University encouraged them to get their credit limits raised so they could pay Trump with plastic. Many agreed to do so, with some maxing out multiple cards and opening up new ones just to pay the cost of “tuition.” A Trump University script even told students to lie about their income so they could increase their credit.
Step 3: Don’t Give Them The Education You Promised
Trump promised his “students” that they would be taught by Trump’s “handpicked instructors” and that the curriculum was based on his own real estate strategies. But as Trump was later forced to admit under oath, all of that was a lie. Trump had nothing to do with selecting the instructors and the curriculum had nothing to do with his strategies.
Many of the instructors had no actual real estate investment experience (though one was very qualified at jewelry-making). Others had actually gone into bankruptcy as a result of their own real estate investments. Some didn’t even own homes
The course material taught by these “experts” was also a sham. Despite Trump’s promise that the courses would be based on his own approach to real estate investment, the curriculum was actually generic material developed by an outside company. Even a “special database” of lenders promised by Trump as a perk of buying into the program turned out to be photocopied from a magazine.
“It was a façade, a total lie.” — Jason Nicholas, former Trump University sales executive
Step 4: Walk Away With Millions While Others Suffer
At a time when Americans were staring down the harsh realities of the Great Recession, Donald Trump used Trump University to promise people that he was the only one looking out for them:
“Today’s so-called economic meltdown and credit crunch have politicians, traders and bankers scrambling for answers. They’ve got bailouts and rescue packages, but who’s helping you? I will. There is no question in my mind I can turn you into a successful real estate investor. I’ve done it many times and I will continue to do it for as long as there are interested people like you who want to better their life, quit their job, and be set for life!” — Donald Trump
But all Trump delivered was an unaccredited certificate and money down the drain. The victims of Trump University – including middle class families, seniors, and veterans who had served their country with dignity and honor –were left having spent thousands of dollars on a lie. They racked up debt to pay for courses they couldn’t afford. Some went bankrupt. Others lost their life savings. George Hanus was feeling the weight of the Great Recession in 2008, when he drained his retirement savings based on advice he received at Trump University
“I expected to make enough to pay back my IRA and to make a better living, but I made zero. I felt deceived and rotten about the whole thing.” — George Hanus, Trump University victim
And Donald Trump? According to one estimate, he walked away with a cool $5 million.
So, to review: With Trump University, Donald Trump promised the American people he would help them out but instead he kicked them while they were down. His business was a scam built on lies, and it left hardworking people worse off while he profited. Sounds a lot like Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.