How Trump U Suckered Its Victims
On the same day we learned Donald Trump misled the public about what he claimed was a $6 million donation to veterans’ charities, we learned that Trump University tried to scam single mothers out of their savings while urging other prospective students to finance their faux education with credit cards.
On Tuesday, almost 400 pages of internal Trump University documents were made public, revealing the “playbooks” Trump employees used to guide their sales pitches for seminars and mentorships that could run upward of $35,000.
The language employed by Trump University’s sales team is similar to that of multilevel marketing scams like AdvoCare and Amway, and even certain cults.
As in those types of institutions, Trump protégés could rise through the ranks—for a steep cost—and saying “no” to an offer was viewed as a starting point to briskly move past, not a conclusion.
The ethos was summed up in the playbooks’ introduction: “An attendee’s problem represents a golden opportunity.”
The draw, for Trump fans, was the free Profit From Real Estate orientation, which ran 90 minutes and was advertised in newspapers, online, and via direct mail.
But the purpose of the orientation was just to get warm bodies in the door and “set the hook,” as the Trump playbooks explicitly say.
Salespeople were instructed to use “the most persuasive words in the English language according to a study by the Psychology Department of Yale University”: You, New, Money, Easy, Discovery, Free, Results, Health, Save, Proven, Guarantee, and Love.
And the most persuasive phrases, to “plant seeds in a student’s mind”: You’re on the right track; this is a great first step; this is just the beginning of your real-estate journey; you have been so close to living an amazing life so many times in your life, but always come up just a little short, let us make sure that never happens again; and so on.
Salespeople were told to speak to attendees in a manner designed to have a “powerful subconscious effect” on their thinking: “Take every opportunity to emphasize that they need to learn the Trump way for continued and growing success!”
“Remember,” the playbooks said, “that we need to stay on ‘offense.’”
The goal was to make the attendees bite, and pony up for the pricey packages that promised to turn humble Average Joes into gaudy real-estate tycoons: the Trump Bronze Elite ($9,995), Trump Silver Elite ($19,495), or, best of all, Trump Gold Elite ($34,995).
Would-be students were asked to list their liquid assets, which helped the Trump sales team determine if they could be “buyers.”
Salespeople were instructed to “collect personalized information” about the potential students. As an example, the playbooks said, “are they a single parent of three children that may need money for food?”
According to the playbooks, “money is never a reason for not enrolling in Trump University; if they really believe in you and your product, they will find the money. You are not doing any favor by letting someone use lack of money as an excuse.”
Trump University was founded on May 23, 2005, the year after the debut of NBC’s The Apprentice—a runaway hit in the heyday of reality TV that averaged 28 million viewers per episode.
A for-profit institution, Trump University initially sold virtual lectures and courses on entrepreneurship, real estate, and marketing on CD-ROM for $300 each.
In theory, though, it was selling something more fantastic: the tools needed to become wealthy and powerful, to attain your very own cavernous boardroom high above Fifth Avenue, from which you could fire your very own lackeys from your very own big, leather chair.
At the time of its inception, Trump University’s roster of professors from elite institutions like Dartmouth, Yale, and Columbia lent it a sheen of authenticity. The school even had a crest of red and gold, with a medieval lion in the center.
But things quickly deteriorated.
By 2011, having been stripped of the privilege of calling itself a “university,” the newly named Trump Entrepreneur Initiative was out of business. Today, it remains the subject of two class-action lawsuits in California as well as a $40 million suit brought by the attorney general from New York, Eric Schneiderman.
According to what former Trump University professors previously told The Daily Beast, the focus of the pseudo-school shifted swiftly from producing and marketing legitimate educational materials that could help people to hosting seminars with questionably credentialed motivational speakers that could do little more than turn a profit for The Donald.
Judging by the playbooks, the desire to turn that profit knew few bounds—something Trump, understandably, wanted to keep secret.
The de facto Republican nominee, a fervent critic of President Obama’s “total lack of transparency,” fought, via his lawyers, to keep the playbooks from becoming public knowledge. But on May 27, U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel ruled in favor of The Washington Post, which had requested their disclosure. In response, at a San Diego rally held Friday, Trump lashed out at Curiel, who is from Indiana, by labeling him a “Mexican” and a “hater.”
Among the tips and tricks offered to get people to hand over their cash to The Donald was a script to use in response to likely objections, like not having the time or funds to take part in the program.
If a prospective student expressed concern about using their credit cards to finance their Trump University education, for instance, salespeople were instructed to respond by saying, “I see, do you like living paycheck to paycheck? Do you like just getting by in life? Do you enjoy seeing everyone else but yourself in their dream houses and driving their dream cars with huge checking accounts? Those people saw an opportunity, and didn’t make excuses, like what you’re doing now.”
When dealing with people without credit cards, salespeople told them, “We teach the technique of using OPM… Other People’s Money. What most people do is handle the tuition by putting it on their credit cards because it gives them the ability to make very small monthly payments and maintain a low overhead to run their real-estate project. Then we [tell] them to use their success in real estate to pay off the banks in a couple of months or so. However, you don’t seem to have the advantage of having that kind of leveraging power. Do you have any other seed capital or savings set aside to further invest into your real-estate projects?”
Further, the playbooks advised recruiters to ask about using their savings to “borrow from your own retirement account to finance real estate investments.”
Trump didn’t invent the get-rich seminar, and he isn’t the first person to use his considerable sense of self to convince other people that, with his help and his help only, they, too can achieve wealth and happiness.
But on the campaign trail today, he is the first American to take a get-rich sales pitch and apply it to the presidency.