“I’ve won much of it, it’s a peanut case. … This is just people wanting to get their money back. Most of these people signed a report card where they say how great it was, then they sue you years later to see if they can get their money back.”
— Donald Trump, news conference, Feb. 26, 2016
“I’ve won most of the lawsuits. … It’s a case that is nonsense. It’s something I could have settled many times. I could settle it right now for very little money, but I don’t want to do it out of principle. The people that took the course all signed — most, many, signed — report cards saying it was fantastic, it was wonderful, it was beautiful.”
— Trump, GOP debate on CNN, Feb. 25, 2016
Attacks from Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz at the debate over Trump University lawsuits stuck with viewers, whose searches for “Trump University” notably spiked when the issue was mentioned.
There are three ongoing lawsuits, so we were curious about Trump’s description that he “won most of the lawsuits,” and wanted to know about this report card that all, most or many attendees signed. His campaign, as per usual, did not respond to our inquiry.
What is Trump talking about?
In 2013, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a $40 million fraud lawsuit against Trump and Trump University. Schneiderman alleged that from 2005 through 2011, Trump operated an unlicensed, illegal education institution. The New York State Education Department had warned Trump as early as 2005 that the use of the word “university” violated state law.
Trump University marketed a free introductory seminar, which can then be upgraded to a three-day seminar that cost $1,495. Then, the students can buy “elite” packages starting at $10,000, with year-long mentorship programs at $35,000.
Those who signed up for Trump University believed they would get insider knowledge about real estate investing, through mentors hand-picked by Trump. Some attendees were asked to raise their credit limits so they could pay for additional courses, they allege. Advertising materials were consistent with the Trump brand, quoting the real estate mogul making statements such as: “I can turn anyone into a successful real estate investor, including you.”
About 80,000 people attended the free introductory seminar, and an additional 9,200 paid for the three-day seminars, according to Schneiderman’s lawsuit. About 800 paid as much as $35,000 for the advanced packages.
Schneiderman’s lawsuit blamed Trump University for running a scam program. Despite what was advertised, few instructors and mentors were successful real estate entrepreneurs, according to the lawsuit. In fact, many of them came to Trump University after their real estate investments caused them to declare bankruptcy. Former attendees filed complaints with attorneys general in several states, and 150 students signed affidavits in the Schneiderman lawsuit.
The day after the debate, politically active non-profit American Future Fund began running attack ads with testimonials from “Trump University victims.”
“I was scammed because I believed in Donald Trump. He can make people believe practically anything,” says a retiree identified as Bob in one ad.
Another ad features a testimonial by a woman named Sherri, saying she paid more than $35,000 to Trump University: “It was all supposedly supervised by Donald Trump, run by Donald Trump. All of it was fake,” Sherri says in the ad.
There are two other class-action lawsuits against Trump by a handful of former students, demanding their money back.
The plaintiff in one class-action suit paid for the $1,495 three-day seminar. He alleged that he was upsold to pay for the Gold Elite program for $35,000. Cohen said he would not have paid for any of them if he knew he wouldn’t get insider knowledge or that Trump had no meaningful role in selecting instructors, as advertised.
The other class-action suit is brought by other former “students” in California, Florida and New York, who have a similar complaint as Cohen.
Trump’s attorneys have created a website called 98percentapproval.com to show that many of the people who are now suing Trump had given positive feedback in evaluations. There are more than 10,000 students who have given positive testimonials, according to Trump’s attorneys.
But plaintiffs in one of the class-action lawsuits said Trump University’s claim that it had a 95 to 98 percent student satisfaction rating was false. The evaluation was conducted during the initial three-day seminar or immediately after it, so many students gave positive ratings while believing they would eventually get long-term benefits through the mentorship and connections, the lawsuit said.
“It is not until later, when students see that the help and information they need is never coming – that they realize they have been scammed,” plaintiffs alleged.
[Update, March 11: A New York Times investigation found that many students were pressured in giving positive ratings.]
Trump’s attorneys said Trump and Trump University never defrauded anyone, and that Schneiderman, a Democrat, was politically motivated. They accused the attorney general of “trying to extort campaign contributions” from Trump through the investigation, the Associated Press reported.
Trump says he’s “won most of the lawsuits.” That’s not the case. He appears to be referring to certain rulings by judges in the three lawsuits that were favorable to Trump. For example, one ruling in 2014 dismissed the motion for an injunction by Schneiderman. The motion was denied because Trump University is no longer operating.
In another victory for Trump, one of the main representatives of the class-action lawsuits asked the judge to remove her from the case, citing financial and emotional stress. The plaintiff made the request in February 2016, citing the intense media attention on her and the lawsuit that resulted from Trump’s presidential run.
The lawsuits are ongoing, and Trump could testify at some point this year, as early as May.
[Update, Nov. 18: President-Elect Donald Trump agreed to a $25 million settlement to end all three lawsuits against him. The settlement included a $1 million penalty to New York state for the use of the word “university,” which violated state law. Every victim will receive restitution, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said in a statement. Schneiderman called the settlement agreement “a stunning reversal by Donald Trump and a major vitory for the over 6,000 victims of his fraudulent university.”
“The victims of Trump University have waited years for today’s result and I am pleased that their patience — and persistence — will be rewarded by this $25 million settlement,” Schneiderman said.]
The Pinocchio Test
In true Trump fashion, he boasts that he “won much of” or “most of” the lawsuits against him over Trump University. But all three lawsuits are pending. Trump can claim some court rulings favorable to himself, but so can the plaintiffs.
Trump also creates a misleading characterization of the plaintiffs filing the lawsuit against him, saying they signed an evaluation praising the program but are suing them just to get their money back. The charges in the lawsuit originate from attendees’ complaints that they were misled into paying tens of thousands of dollars for a mentoring and training program that didn’t deliver what it advertised.
Trump goes too far downplaying the allegations, by saying most of it is already resolved. That’s just not the case.
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