If it were listed in a college course catalog, it would be titled “The Art of the Squeal: Exacting Painful Reputational Damage in the Court of Public Opinion.” An illuminating case study, no doubt, is this week’s all-out media war between Donald Trump and Eric Schneiderman, in which the reality star/real-estate mogul and New York’s attorney general have been using television and other outlets to trade accusations and insults over a defunct business called “Trump University,” which Schneiderman claims victimized 600 New Yorkers, among more than 5,000 duped consumers nationwide, who were allegedly induced to pay thousands of dollars for real-estate education and privileged access they never actually received.
Both combatants have been scoring hits and drawing blood, but it remains to be seen if Trump, the target of the attorney general’s $40 million civil suit (PDF) filed last Saturday in New York Supreme Court, or Schneiderman, who is up for reelection next year, will prevail in the end.
“The attorney general picked a fight with somebody who is much better at media than Schneiderman ever dreams to be,” said Republican political consultant E. O’Brien Murray, a longtime Trump admirer. “Donald Trump’s M.O. is ‘All press is good press.’ He returns reporters’ phone calls himself. He doesn’t hide behind flacks. He has a great relationship with the media. Some people love him, some people hate him, but he speaks his mind, and you know the minute you take a shot at him, he’s going to come after you.” Murray added: “Schneiderman is bringing a knife to a gunfight.”
Democratic media consultant Jimmy Siegel argued, to the contrary, “I don’t see a big political risk for Eric Schneiderman in taking him on. Trump is seen as a blowhard and a clown. He’s 97 percent on the side of entertainment and 3 percent on the side of seriousness. What, are people going to rally to Donald Trump’s side? Is he a sympathetic character? No.” Siegel, who is making commercials for New York City comptroller candidate Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former governor who used to hold Schneiderman’s job, acknowledged that suing Trump “is something you do to get your name in the newspapers, but it’s not something I would define as ‘political hackery’”—a reference to one of the barbs that Trump has hurled at his tormentor in recent days. “I would define it as ‘tradecraft.’”
Yet a spokesman for the attorney general insisted that publicity and politics were never a consideration in the decision to go to war. “Attorney General Schneiderman is pursuing this case for one very simple reason: no one, no matter how rich or famous they are, has a right to scam hardworking New Yorkers. Anyone who does should expect to be held accountable.”
Like a lot of headline-making disputes, this particular media food fight started with an email. Shortly before 9 a.m. on Friday, August 23, an ABC News producer wrote to Trump’s press officer, Rhona Graff, requesting an interview with her boss for Good Morning America “regarding a petition that is going to be filed in court shortly by the N.Y. Attorney General’s office against The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative LLC and including The Trump Organization Inc.”
Producer Gerry Wagschal, who had been given an advance copy of the lawsuit by the press-friendly attorney general’s staff, added, “The suit alleges deceptive acts and practices and false advertising in connection with the operation of the Trump Entrepreneurship Institute,” otherwise known as Trump University, which ostensibly offered insider seminars on how to get rich in real estate, while charging thousands of dollars in “tuition” under the supposedly exhaustive instruction of the Celebrity Apprentice star’s “handpicked experts.”
The network producer’s email, Trump’s operatives claim, served as their formal notification of Schneiderman’s imminent legal action—though the attorney general’s office vehemently disagrees with that version of events. Still, in an interview with The Daily Beast, Trump Organization executive vice president and special counsel Michael Cohen professed shock—shock— that this was the rude way in which they were informed of the lawsuit’s timing, especially because Trump’s lawyers had been trying in good faith to negotiate a settlement with Schneiderman since early 2011. A lawsuit seemed inevitable after the talks broke down a few months ago, when lawyers in the attorney general’s office scoffed at Trump’s offer to pay a fine, far less than they wanted, in return for declaring him blameless of wrongdoing.
And now the attorney general didn’t even have the decency to give Trump a heads up. “Who learns of an intention—after two and a half plus years of ongoing conversations—that you’re going to be sued, from a segment producer at Good Morning America?” Cohen demanded.
Luckily, this isn’t The Donald’s first rodeo. The 66-year-old tycoon has spent the past four decades in the public eye, displaying a genius for attracting attention, burnishing his bona fides as a self-made billionaire (although his father, Fred, was himself a millionaire real-estate developer); teasing the body politic every four years with hints that he might run for president; and turning his surname into a valuable brand, “Trump” being a synonym for gold-leafed luxury. Through it all, he has reveled in the sort of name-calling and bickering with adversaries that passes in the media world for gladiatorial combat, happily getting down in the dirt, as it were, with opponents ranging from Rosie O’Donnell to Barack Obama.
By these standards, Eric Schneiderman is a mere fly buzzing around a thatch-roofed pompadour. Team Trump was ready to wield the swatter.
A few hours after the smoking email, they went live with 98percentapproval.com, a website “created to bring to the public’s attention the gross incompetence of New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman,” and defend the honor of Trump University, which, according to more than 10,000 surveys posted on the site, received endorsements of customer satisfaction from 98 percent of Trump U’s students. (Schneiderman’s lawsuit casts doubt on the validity of those endorsements.) Shortly after that, Cohen met at Trump Tower with New York Post reporter Carl Campanile while a colleague briefed a representative of The Wall Street Journal—the other Rupert Murdoch–owned New York newspaper—for exclusives on the as-yet-unreported lawsuit.
Campanile’s Saturday story was especially helpful to Trump’s strategy—played out on multiple television appearances this week—of portraying Schneiderman as a grubby, two-faced politician who never misses an opportunity to shake down prominent New Yorkers for campaign contributions even as, in this case, he was pursuing a potentially damaging investigation of one of them.
It described “a fawning handwritten personal letter from Schneiderman to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, thanking them for hosting [a fundraiser].” “Much thanks for the great breakfast. I love meeting new people, and that was a great group,” Schneiderman wrote. The story added that the attorney general’s office, which launched its probe of Trump U in May 2011, assured Trump’s aides that “the case was ‘very weak’ and would ‘go away.’” (Not reported in the Post story: Trump himself gave $12,500 to Schneiderman’s 2010 campaign.)
On Sunday, the attorney general’s office issued a press release about the lawsuit, and on Monday, Trump and Schneiderman took their duel to the viewing audience. Trump appeared by phone on Fox & Friends (on the Murdoch-owned Fox News Channel), Good Morning America, the Today show, CNN, Good Day New York, and CNBC. Schneiderman tried to match his opponent, booking for booking. The attorney general also appeared on two Monday-night MSNBC programs, Politics Nation with Al Sharpton and All In with Chris Hayes.
Pressing his attack on Fox & Friends, Trump picked up on Campanile’s story, saying of Schneiderman, “He sits up in my office asking me for campaign contributions; he’s been there numerous times. He’s a political hack. He figures by going after Trump, he can get some publicity, which he will get, but we’ll try and make it uncomfortable as possible.” Trump added his suspicion that the lawsuit was filed at the urging of President Obama, when Schneiderman crossed paths with the president during a White House trip to Syracuse to tout low-interest college-tuition loans. “They meet on Thursday evening. I get sued by this A.G. Schneiderman … They obviously did it very quickly, but probably Obama—maybe this is a mini IRS. Maybe we have to get the Tea Party after these people because this could very well be a mini IRS.”
Talking about Trump, Schneiderman repeatedly used words such as “fraud” and “phony.” During his CNN appearance Monday, he dismissed the mogul’s claim about Obama. “The president and I had much more important stuff to talk about than Donald Trump … I’ve never discussed Donald Trump with the president.” He followed up on Tuesday with an op-ed in the New York Daily News, scorching Trump’s “sham for-profit college” and his “outlandish accusations.” He added, “That’s not surprising for a showman who has built a career around bluster and hype. But I am not in the entertainment business; I am in the justice business.”
Thus the skirmishing continues, with no prospect of a truce. Michael Cohen, Trump’s oft-quoted defender, claimed fighting the case on television and on the Internet is the last thing his boss wants. “There should be no media war between Mr. Trump and the attorney general,” Cohen told me. “This matter was leaked to Good Morning America by the attorney general for the sole purpose of creating a media frenzy that he feels is providing him with some benefit. Mr. Trump’s strong stance appears to be resonating with the public. But this will ultimately be decided in a court of law—to the sheer embarrassment of Mr. Schneiderman and his office.”
Nope. No media war here.