Over the years, plenty of people who launched their careers in business became politicians on both sides of the aisle. A few have tried to make the leap from the private sector to the presidency, but such a jump hasn't been attempted since 1940. But it is safe to say that no one has tried to ascend to the White House with a business record as polarizing as that of Donald Trump’s. Sure, one can point to his hotels and golf resorts, though we do not have an accurate picture of their business performance since Trump’s business and tax records have not been released. Nevertheless, as many in the media prefer to jump on the violence at Trump rallies and assign blame to who “started it,” the controversy over Trump University merits a close look. In recent days, more publications combed over a mess that has become Trump’s version of the email server scandal.
While Trump assails his presumptive opponent Hillary Clinton as “crooked,” the case against Trump University, otherwise known as the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative, has exploded as one of the largest issues in the campaign. Long before the two class-action lawsuits fomented even more invective from Trump, the leading conservative magazine National Review derided Trump University as a “massive scam.” Rather than taking students to a promised land of Boardwalk and Trump Tower, many of them never got near Mediterranean Avenue and their classes were akin to those of early 1990s real estate scammer Tom Vu.
What’s disturbing about Trump’s venture is that its core business model is nothing new. As with Tom Vu over 20 years ago, Trump University prospects could go to a free seminar. And as was the case with Vu --who exhorted people to attend his workshops, or else, “You deserve to be broke!” -- students said they were swindled out of funds as they purportedly gained information that could be found in the library or on the Internet.
Founded a decade ago before closing shop in 2010, Trump University has since seen its ghosts become increasingly vocal. Trump continues to defend his real estate education venture as one that was “terrific,” but more students are speaking out about the debt they racked up. The Daily Beast, for example, brought up the case of an ex-marine who said he was told to increase the limits on his credit cards in order to pay for seminars and materials, with the result that he ended up $45,000 in debt. And it is not just students who are testifying in depositions; ex-employees of Trump University explained that the “hard sell” tactics they used were part of a grand “scheme” and “lies.” Recently released court documents outline the tactics that sales representatives brandished as they convinced students to borrow from credit cards or retirement accounts.
Ironically, Trump University was at its zenith as the U.S. housing market edged toward collapse a decade ago. An audiobook from Trump University revealed that Trump was practically hoping for a real estate crash as he was recorded as saying, “I sort of hope that happens because then people like me would go in and buy, you know, if you’re in a good cash position.”
None of Trump University’s students was reported to be in a good cash position.
Trump’s candidacy, largely built upon the fact that many Americans feel as if Wall Street and Washington, D.C. are colluding to work against them, is already beginning to reveal what kind of presidency a Trump administration would offer the American people — and it is one that would further blur the grey area between private-sector influence and government policy. And that blurring would be based on Trump's interests.
Take Trump’s attitude toward Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel, a native of Indiana. Curiel, who is presiding over two class-action lawsuits against Trump in San Diego, has agreed that those trials will not start until after Election Day. Nevertheless, Trump insisted the “Mexican” judge should recuse himself from the cases because of a conflict of interest -- as in, Trump’s push to build a wall on the U.S. southern border.
We should not be surprised that Trump and his education venture insist they are innocent of wrongdoing; and so far, they are innocent in the eyes of U.S. law. The personal attacks on the judge, however, are going in a new direction that makes those on the left and right very uncomfortable; after all, if a judge could be recused from a case because of his or her race or ethnicity, the legal system would grind to a halt.
Furthermore, Trump has a history of basing his positions on what benefits him. Take his stance on clean energy, which he often speaks out against because such projects interfere with his business interests. Or his affinity for eminent domain, which is anathema to most economic conservatives. About the only policy he does not speak out against is the current low interest rates, but that is because of the reported debt his portfolio of companies is servicing.
Trump has proven to become the 2016 version of the Teflon candidate, yet the Trump University kerfuffle has accomplished at least one thing: It gave presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton a pulse. She pushed back hard on Trump last week over the alleged fraud and litigation. Now it is time for the business community to speak out. Social media has done much to encourage companies to offer more transparency about their operations. But social media has also been behind the rise of a candidate who treats transparency and disclosure as a joke.
Image credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.