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Trump University gets an A in deception

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Donald Trump spoke in New York on May 31.Richard Drew

We've long known that Donald Trump is a political con man. After all, the centerpiece of his presidential campaign is a pledge to build a wall along the US-Mexican border and have the Mexican government pay for it. This, of course, has no chance of happening. Trump also says he will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created and that he will make American great again, not with proposals or ideas, but merely by being elected to the nation's highest office. All politicians are, to some extent, snake oil salesman, but Trump is the best.

But now we have evidence that Trump isn't just a scam artist in politics, he's a scam artist in his business life too.


This week, the judge in the fraud lawsuit over Trump University unsealed documents that lay bare the extent to which the for-profit school was little more than a tawdry money-making scheme for Trump, intended to prey on vulnerable Americans who were desperate to be rich. The goal was not to teach students how to make money, but rather how to separate them from their money by getting them to enroll in expensive real estate seminars, some priced as high as $35,000.

In these documents we see the origins of Trump's presidential campaign. The same manipulations he's used to prey on the fears of anxious GOP voters, he used to make money off Trump University.

"Do you like living paycheck to paycheck?" instructors are told to tell potential students. ''Let them know that you've found an answer and a way for them to change their lifestyles," says another.

''You don't sell products, benefits, or solutions — you sell feelings." Sound familiar?

The university's sales people were urged to use "persuasive words" to get people to buy the university's overpriced products ''The words 'I noticed' have a powerful subconscious effect on people," said one playbook, "because they send a subliminal message to them that they stood out in the crowd, that they are attractive or charismatic or that they impressed you. People love recognition and attention.''


Kind of like the man for whom Trump University is named.

"If they complain about the price," one playbook read. "Remind them that Trump is the BEST!!" Hmm, where have I heard that before?

What if they can't afford Trump University? "Money is never a reason for not enrolling in Trump University," instructors are told. "If they really believe in you and your product, they will find the money."

Here's where Trump University veers from the hard sell to preying on people's vulnerabilities in a more direct and damaging manner.

One sales manager, Ronald Schnackenberg, told of being reprimanded for not convincing a cash-strapped couple to pay the $35,000 fee for one of Trump's "elite" classes by using the husband's "disability income" and taking out a home equity loan. Other salesmen at the university, reported Schnackenberg, didn't feel the same pangs of conscience and got the couple to sign on the bottom line.

Potential students were even told to max out their credit cards in order to pay for Trump University classes, or dip into their savings as "seed capital" for potential real estate investments. And they were told that the best possible investments were those that took full advantage of others' misfortune. Trump University students were told to look for opportunities that arose out of the housing crash — foreclosed properties. "Cash in on one of the greatest property liquidations in history," said one Trump University advertisement. So much for helping those hurt by the crash. Trump merely looked for ways to help the vultures get better access to the carcasses.


While the university was named for Trump and claimed that he personally selected the school's instructors, Schnackenberg reported that in seven months of working at Trump U. he never once saw Trump, and that few of the school's instructors had any actual real estate experience.

Just as these instructors tried to convince potential marks . . . er, students about the advantages of Trump University, his campaign is predicated on convincing enough Americans that electing him will make America great again. Both were, of course, deceptions. And while Trump U might have been about lining his pockets, Trump for President is about Trump's fragile ego and need for constant affirmation.

The real surprise is not that Trump is practiced in the art of deception and manipulation, it's that so many people keep falling for it. The old line attributed to P.T. Barnum is that there's a sucker born every minute. I can't imagine what he would have thought about Donald Trump and the millions who are supporting him for president.

Michael A. Cohen's column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.