There are three basic legs to Trump’s campaign stool. First, that he is sincere. He claims that, unlike other politicians, he never says anything he doesn’t mean and won’t be cowed by political correctness. Second, he claims he is great manager who will bring in the best people to run the government. Sure, he lacks political experience, but his top men will make up for that. Finally, he says he gets results. Trump points to the great success of his multi-billion-dollar company as proof he can get these done.
Whether or not Trump or Trump University broke the law, the facts of the case put these Trump claims in serious question. He has admitted in court filings that he lied about key elements of the school. He hired people with little experience or expertise to run it. Far from being a great success, Trump University is now all but defunct. So what happened?
What Was Trump University?To understand what Trump University was, it is important to understand what it wasn’t—namely, a university. According a lawsuit filed by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in 2013, the state informed Trump University when it opened in 2005 that it was breaking the law by calling itself a university. It took five years for the name to change, all the while, according to Schneiderman, it operated illegally as a non-accredited university.
Gitell recounts the two-hour presentation by a Trump employee ‘playing on fears and hopes’ in a manner that reminded him of Alec Baldwin’s character in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross.’
Trump University did not offer any degrees, or any rounded curriculum. What it did offer was a series of educational products, priced as high as $35,000, which would teach students how to reap big profits in real estate. At the lowest level it offered seminars, like the ones we hear ads for on the radio, promising to teach investors how to flip property. At those seminars, prospective students would be upsold pricier and supposedly more valuable classes.
In a telling blog post from 2008, Seth Gitell describes attending one of these seminars. It is well worth reading, and describes the familiar atmosphere of a multi-level-marketing scheme aimed at people looking to get rich quick. Gitell recounts the two-hour presentation by a Trump employee “playing on fears and hopes” in a manner that reminded him of Alec Baldwin’s character in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
This account fits the stories of Trump University “victims” portrayed in a series of ads from American Future Fund, an anti-Trump PAC. Former students claim they were tricked, swindled by slick, silver-tongued snake oil salesmen. Some faced serious financial hardship after doling out tens of thousands of dollars for their real estate education. Along with New York State, they are suing Trump for misrepresenting the value of a Trump University education.
Trump Lied, People CriedOne important defense of Trump University is that no educational institution, whether accredited or not, can guarantee the future financial success of its students. Plenty of baristas on the Lower East Side owe much more than $30,000 for their masters of fine arts degrees from New York University. But NYU does make some promises to these arts students that they are expected to live up to. They promise students will learn from top professionals in their fields, for example. They do, in fact provide that.
This is very close to the claim he is making to the American people, that as president he will focus on voters’ interests above all else.
The crux of the claim that Trump misled prospective students stems from similar promises. In promotional materials for Trump University, he claimed he would hand-pick top professionals in the field of real estate to instruct students. According to New York State’s lawsuit, that never happened. In court filings Trump himself has admitted as much, stating that while he was involved in creating Trump University, once it was up and running he little or nothing to do with it.
For his supporters, the Trump train is the straight-talk express. Not beholden to special interests, Trump can tell it like it is. In this case, Trump has admitted he was dishonest about his role at Trump University. This may not be enough for his former students to recoup monetary damages, but it should be enough to damage his image of being forthright and forthcoming.