Donald Trump was personally involved in devising the marketing strategy for Trump University, even vetting potential ads, according to newly disclosed sworn testimony from the company’s top executive taken as part of an ongoing lawsuit. In the testimony, part of a trove of records made public as a result of a federal judge’s Friday order, the executive said that the real estate mogul was involved in discussions and signed off “any time we had a new ad.”
“Mr. Trump understandably is protective of his brand and very protective of his image and how he’s portrayed,” Michael Sexton, Trump University’s president, said in the 2012 deposition. “And he wanted to see how his brand and image were portrayed in Trump University marketing materials. And he had very good and substantive input as well.”
The order Friday from U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel came in response to a request by The Washington Post, which argued that the public had an interest in learning about a business run by a potential president. Lawyers for Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, opposed the release, arguing that the records contained trade secrets.
The records released Tuesday include documents from employees who described Trump University as a scam, as well as internal company manuals, called “playbooks,” which show that instructors were advised to aggressively steer prospective customers toward the most expensive courses. The playbooks advised staff members to collect “personalized information” about participants to help close sales. One example: “Are they a single parent of three children that may need money for food?” Trump University’s marketing tactics have been at the center of a case in which former students allege they were defrauded by the company. Among their allegations: that they were misled by ads featuring Trump claiming that he was overseeing the curriculum and that the faculty would be “hand-picked by me.”
Trump has rejected the fraud allegations and has said the company provided a valuable service. A Trump lawyer, Jill A. Martin, predicted Tuesday that the company will prevail when the case goes to trial, which is expected to happen in late November. Much of the newly unsealed evidence, she said, “demonstrates the high level of satisfaction from students, and that Trump University taught valuable real estate information.”
Tuesday’s release included a number of glowing reviews from customers. “Trump University is some of the best money I ever invested!” one customer wrote.
Trump’s exact role in his for-profit educational venture has been a key point of contention. Previously reported testimony from the lawsuit suggested that Trump was not deeply involved in the substance of the courses.
Sexton testified in a separate deposition that Trump did not personally select instructors for the marquee sessions. And Trump, in a sworn deposition, was unable to recall the names of key faculty members.
Even so, according to the newly disclosed testimony from Sexton, the company was eager to leverage Trump’s growing celebrity status stemming from his hit reality-television show, “The Apprentice.” Sexton said that, during the part of the year when the NBC show was airing, ads typically carried slogans related to the program, such as: “I want you to be my Apprentice.”
Sexton testified that Trump’s role as “chairman” of Trump University was purposely highlighted in advertising, as was a picture of the mogul’s signature.
But he said one potential ad theme built around the idea of teaching students to “invest like a billionaire” was rejected.
“It wasn’t accessible to people,” Sexton said. “People didn’t necessarily walk around wanting to be a billionaire. They’d be very happy to be a millionaire. . . . I think our feeling was that it was almost overwhelming, daunting, you know; that’s not going to happen.”
The records were unsealed as Trump continued to attack Curiel, the judge overseeing the case. He has previously said Curiel, who is Hispanic, may be biased because of Trump’s proposal for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Friday, Trump described the Indiana-born jurist as “Mexican.”
In an appearance Tuesday, Trump said Curiel was “very bad.” Asked why he would risk antagonizing the person presiding over the litigation, he responded: “Because I don’t care. I have a judge who’s very, very unfair. He knows he’s unfair. And I’ll win the Trump University case.”
Trump University was started in 2004 as a business offering courses in entrepreneurship under the Trump brand. Trump gave his consent and became a 93 percent owner of the enterprise, according to Sexton’s newly unsealed deposition.
Trump was the centerpiece of the company’s advertising pitches. “Trump University will deliver the experience, knowledge and wisdom of Donald Trump himself,” according to marketing materials distributed to potential customers. In a promotional video, Trump declared that “at Trump University, we teach success. That’s what it’s all about — success.” He described the faculty as “the best of the best,” with instructors “handpicked by me.”
In addition to the class-action lawsuits being considered by Curiel, Trump University faces a separate $40 million fraud case in New York, filed by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. A New York judge recently ruled that the case should go to trial; Trump has appealed the ruling, a process that is expected to last several months.
The documents unsealed by the federal judge in the class-action case include a contract with a Trump University speaker showing that a portion of the speaker’s compensation was based on signing up seminar participants to buy more Trump University products. While in training, speakers were expected to hit a certain sales rate in order to be retained by the program, according to the contract.
One former Trump University staffer, Ronald Schnackenberg, wrote in a formal statement unsealed Tuesday that he quit the program in 2007 after working there for less than a year, deciding that it was engaging in “misleading, fraudulent and dishonest” practices. His statement said he was reprimanded by Trump University for not working harder to sell a $35,000 program to a couple who could not afford it and would have had to use disability pay and a loan taken out against equity in their apartment to pay for it.
He said another salesperson talked the couple into paying for the seminar after he refused. “I was disgusted by this conduct and decided to resign,” he wrote.
Schnackenberg wrote that he never saw Trump in seven months, and he concluded that the program was not intended to teach about real estate but instead that it “preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money.”
The newly disclosed documents also include a series of annual behind-the-scenes strategy manuals intended to guide Trump University employees. Known as “playbooks,” the documents instruct staff in the minutiae of setting up and running free introductory courses, but emphasize that participants should be pressed to sign up for additional, pricey classes.