The good, the bad and the Donald: Documents paint conflicting portraits of Trump U

Trump University
Donald Trump at a news conference in New York in 2005 announcing the establishment of Trump University. A class-action suit filed by former students is set to go to trial this month.
(Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press)

Court documents unsealed this week in two class-action lawsuits against Trump University portray the program as a “fraudulent scheme” that employed high-pressure sales tactics — as well as a place where some participants got “exceptional” advice about profiting from real estate.

The views of former employees and customers of the investing program and its namesake — apparent Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump — are contained in papers that were under seal in San Diego federal court for almost two years. They were ordered released last week by U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel.

The hundreds of pages include business plans, PowerPoint presentations, sales scripts and directions for employees, excerpts from depositions of key figures at Trump University and sworn declarations from past employees and customers.

You can go to an Outback Steakhouse restaurant anywhere in the country and you don’t expect the owner of Outback to be there giving you your food.
customer Nicholas Perioux, on his view that Trump is a brand

Ronald Schnackenberg, a former sales manager at Trump University for seven months in 2006 and 2007, described the business as one that  “preyed on the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money.” He said he knew of instructors who were not well educated in real estate — one, he said, had a background in jewelry making.

Overall, Schnackenberg said, the seminars that started at $1,500 and escalated in price to almost $35,000 were designed not to help students but to get their money. “A scheme involving a constant upsell,” he said.

Speakers at the seminars told attendees to raise their credit card limits to be better positioned to buy real estate, with the real goal to up their limits to buy the next and more expensive level of seminar, Schnackenberg said.

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Another former sales employee, Jason Nicholas, said in a declaration that “the Trump University instructors and mentors were a joke.… They were unqualified people posing as Donald Trump’s ‘right-hand men.’ They were teaching methods that were unethical and they had little to no experience flipping properties or doing real estate deals. It was a facade, a lie.”

Jill Martin, general counsel for the Trump Organization, dismissed those attacks, saying in a statement that the allegations had been recanted or “completely discredited” when the individuals were deposed.

Martin said that the majority of customers had positive experiences with Trump University, and that those perceptions were reflected in the documents and in surveys — also part of the record — that show high satisfaction.

“Trump University looks forward to using this evidence, along with much more, to win when the case is brought before a jury,” Martin said. A trial date in one lawsuit is set for November, after the election.

The Trump University instructors and mentors were a joke.
former sales employee Jason Nicholas

The suits accuse Trump of misleading students of his now-defunct real estate program. They contend Trump University falsely held itself out to be an accredited university, that students would be taught by real estate experts and mentors handpicked by Trump and that students would get a year of mentoring.

The unsealed documents contain several declarations from former customers who said they benefited from the seminars.

One, Nicholas Perioux, said he knew the school was not an actual university and didn’t recall being told the instructors had been selected by Trump. Besides, he said, it didn’t matter, because he was buying into the Trump brand.


“The way I look at it, you can go to an Outback Steakhouse restaurant anywhere in the country and you don’t expect the owner of Outback to be there giving you your food. It is known that Outback is a brand, just like Trump is a brand,” Perioux said in his declaration.

While some of the satisfied customers said that they gained knowledge and have made money, none made it big. Some flipped properties and pocketed five-figure profits. Most said the experience mattered.

“I have more confidence, knowledge and experience than when I began my journey,” customer Paula Levan wrote.

Trump’s lawyers argue that those who failed to find real estate success should fault themselves.


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Moran writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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