What would Donald Trump be like as president? One way to get a better sense of his potential governing style and temperament is to examine his decades of experience in business. While his early career focused on real-estate deals – sometimes disastrously – he has since leveraged the power of his brand to sell everything from hotels to vodka.
In 2004, Mr. Trump and Michael Sexton founded Trump University, an initiative offering real-estate seminars. Owned nearly entirely by Mr. Trump, it shut down in 2011. Now it is the target of several lawsuits, including a case brought by the Attorney General of New York State for deceptive business practices.
In a federal class-action lawsuit now under way, plaintiffs claim the venture was a sham sold on lies, something that lawyers for Mr. Trump deny. Mr. Trump has lashed out at Gonzalo Curiel, the judge overseeing the case, calling him a "hater," "very hostile" and "Mexican" (the judge was born in Indiana). The trial is scheduled to begin in late November, three weeks after the U.S. presidential election.
Recently, Judge Curiel ordered the unsealing of more than 1,000 pages of documents in the case. They feature several versions of a "playbook" for selling products using high-pressure tactics. They also include depositions from former employees describing their remorse at participating in the venture.
Trump University placed ads in newspapers urging people to attend its seminars and included a personal appeal from Mr. Trump himself. "My hand-picked instructors will share my techniques," he promised. "Then, copy exactly what I've done and get rich."
Trump University also created a script to attract customers. "Let me ask you," went the pitch, "Is everything Donald Trump does the BEST? He wouldn't put his name on this if it wasn't, right?"
The hard sell
A person's experience of Trump University often began with a free orientation seminar. At the end of the event, attendees were urged to buy an introductory workshop costing $1,495 (U.S.) and then "elite" packages. The most expensive was the "Trump Gold Elite" for $34,995. Employees also completed worksheets on the financial resources of attendees, including their "leverage ability."
The sales playbook provided responses to many common objections voiced by would-be customers who hesitated to make an expensive purchase, including, "I don't want to go into debt," and "I just paid off my credit cards."
Mr. Trump's lawyers provided formal statements from several customers who claimed that Trump University courses helped them make money on real-estate deals. Meanwhile, lawyers for the plaintiffs offered statements from at least three former employees who declared that the sales pitch was dishonest and fraudulent.
Ronald Schnackenberg, a sales manager from October, 2006, to May of 2007, said Trump University was "only interested in selling every person the most expensive seminar they possibly could."
Jason Nicholas, a sales executive from May to October of 2007, said Trump University's sales pitch was deceptive, including the claims that its instructors were experts hand-picked by Mr. Trump. The instructors "were a joke," he said. "Most of them were not experts in real estate and did not [have] experience in the real-estate techniques they were teaching."