What the Legal Battle Over Trump University Reveals About Its Founder
Tapping Insecurity and Aspirations
"So you had a long day at work, huh? I think we might just have something to help you out of that 9-5 of yours."
That's an instruction in the playbook for dialogue designed to get people to take the plunge and buy the $1,495 course. "Let them know that you've found an answer to their problems and a way for them to change their lifestyle," the playbook explains.
Those directions come from the playbook's marketing section, titled "Building Rapport and Planting Seeds." It's aimed at up-selling people from the $1,495 course to the $34,995 version. (Again, in Trump's deposition, he says he personally approved marketing and advertising materials but not the actual curriculums.)
"Give them credit for taking a great first step," the playbook says. "But don't let them think three days will be enough to make them successful ... People will always take the path of least resistance; do not give them the option."
My interviews with six of those who paid Trump tuition are consistent with the apparent demographic target of the promotional campaigns. They seem to be middle-class or lower-middle-class people anxious about their financial situations and aspiring to do better. In other words, they are the exact group that Trump the candidate is trying to appeal to.
Boyce Chait, 84, and his wife Evelyn, 80, live in New Jersey. They demanded but were refused a refund after their $34,995 mentorship proved, Boyce says, "to be worth nothing. When it came to the nitty-gritty, there was nothing there."
Nonetheless, Boyce said he and his wife would still "vote for Trump over Hillary Clinton," because they are members of the Tea Party.
Hiding Behind Legalisms
The crux of the suits is that Trump defrauded customers by claiming he was handpicking the faculty and arming them to teach his personal secrets, when in fact his only involvement had to do with approving marketing and promotional materials. That would seem to require his lawyers to present as much evidence as possible of his personal involvement in the overall operations of Trump University.
On the other hand, because the suits named him personally (in addition to the corporate entity that owns the university), his lawyers have had a strong incentive to distance Trump the person from Trump the venture. That way they could get him dismissed from the suits while they continued on against the university, thereby shielding his personal assets from a damages award.
The lawyers have walked this tightrope in ways that are at times laughable. For example, although the marketing pitches promised students that Trump owned the university "lock, stock and barrel," in seeking to get Trump dismissed personally, his lawyers have declared that he was "completely absent" from the university and owned none of the stock in the company.
The lawyers' ownership claim is true, technically: The stock of the for-profit Trump University was owned not by Trump but by a for-profit limited-liability corporation. The catch is that two of Trump's personally owned limited-liability corporations in turn owned 92% of that other corporation's stock. That would explain why Trump, his daughter, one of his sons and his parent company's chief financial officer were the only ones authorized to sign checks drawn on the university's account.
Based on evidence like that, as well as Trump's admitted hands-on role in the marketing of the program, the judge denied the motions to dismiss Trump personally.