New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman appeared on Morning Joe today to discuss his ongoing lawsuit against Donald Trump, which accuses him of operating an “unlicensed, illegal education institution” that defrauded thousands of people. Trump University exploded into the news this week when unsealed documents from a separate lawsuit against the institution revealed testimony from former employees claiming it fleeced vulnerable students by, among other things, actively encouraging them to shell out money on credit they couldn’t afford.
The quote from Schneiderman that drove some buzz today is the one in which he claimed that Trump University was “fraud,” and added that Trump had privately offered to “settle” the lawsuit with New York’s Attorney General. If true, this contradicts Trump’s previous claim that he has not sought to settle the lawsuit “out of principle.” After all, only a big loser would settle a lawsuit, while winners like Trump win them, right?
But I think another quote from Schneiderman deserves some attention: He noted that a lot of the victims of Trump’s alleged scam were people who had come to the school amid a dark period in the aftermath of the financial crisis, when they were desperate to find a way to make money.
Here’s the key part of Schneiderman’s appearance:
Schneiderman noted that his lawsuit had uncovered evidence that Trump’s claims of direct involvement in handpicking instructors and curricula had turned out to be false. Schneiderman said Trump’s vow that financial “experts” would be educating students on his “personal secrets” also turned out to be bogus; instead, “some of them came out of fast food.”
“It’s fraud. It’s a straight up fraud….this was not a university….Trump’s role was really the pitchman….people were led to believe they were getting the personal secrets of Trump during hard economic times. We’re talking about 2008, 2009, 2010. People wanted to scramble to find a way to make money. He duped them in. Thousands of people paid millions of dollars. And we’re out to get them their money back.”
I asked a spokesman for Schneiderman, Matt Mittenthal, for further clarification. He emailed:
“As our investigation uncovered in hundreds of victim accounts and testimony from Trump and his deputies, Trump University was a classic fraud designed to take advantage of people’s needs during tough economic times. In fact, the vast majority of students were enrolled in 2007, 2008, and 2009.”
This perhaps bumps the story up a level. Some of the students who were allegedly defrauded were easy targets because they were panicked about their future livelihoods, due to the financial crash’s aftermath. They were people who were searching for long-term financial security at a very difficult moment for the country and were taken in by Trump University’s promise that it would teach them Trump’s secret money-making wizardry.
Trump’s lawyers reject this characterization of the school, say they’ll prevail at trial, and insist there is plenty of evidence of satisfaction with the school, in the form of testimonials from students. (On that latter score, the New York Times recently reported that students said they were pressured to give the school high ratings.)
Still, in the near term, it’s possible some people may soon come forward to discuss their experiences in personal terms, once reporters track them down. Alternatively, it’s possible some could appear in Dem ads before long. A senior Dem tells me that ads featuring victims of the alleged Trump University fraud are being considered.
It’s true that Trump’s GOP rivals already tried to air some of this stuff in ads. Back in February, Glenn Kessler did a useful rundown on this whole controversy and the GOP ads they spawned, and talked to some of the victims. Obviously these ads didn’t stop Trump.
But it seems plausible that this ammunition might become more potent in the hands of Democrats. Dems ran ads in 2012 against Mitt Romney that featured layoff victims lamenting Bain Capital’s disregard for the economic carnage left in the wake of its deal-making, and these were credited with helping to brand him as a plutocrat who didn’t care about working class and middle class Americans’ economic plights. It’s worth recalling that there was a good deal of media skepticism at the time about whether this strategy would work.
Democrats are already jumping on the Trump University story to portray Trump as a personally cruel and rapacious flim-flam man, with the similar goal of driving home that Trump is not on the side of ordinary Americans. If Trump’s selling point for the presidency is that he will make everyone winners again at a time when the recovery is still leaving a lot of people behind, perhaps testimony from people who say he preyed on their vulnerability amid the recession and his aftermath might further undermine his latest sales pitch.