In two sworn depositions, unsealed Thursday, Donald Trump admitted that he had nothing at all to do with choosing the Trump University instructors, presented for years as his “hand-picked” representatives, who purported to impart his secret knowledge, itself born of years of experience and a Wharton education.
The two depositions—one given in December, in New York; the other in Las Vegas, in January—were taken in the course of a class-action suit that has been filed against Trump in California by four former Trump University students.
The plaintiffs in the class-action suit allege (as does New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, in a separate case) that Donald Trump, and Trump University, exploited people, capitalizing on the Trump brand to fleece unwitting students out of thousands of dollars, starting with a free, 90-minute seminar that was actually just an up-sell for a series of increasingly expensive Trump-branded programs. The New York suit estimates Trump University bilked several thousand people out of some $40 million.
Recently, Trump has suggested in stump speeches and on the debate stage that the lawyers bringing the class-action suit against him are trying to get one of the plaintiffs, Tarla Makaeff, off the case. “The person that started the suit wrote a great statement saying it was fantastic and did a film clip saying that it was fantastic and they just asked that she be taken out of the case. She doesn’t want to be in the case anymore,” he said at a rally in Arkansas last month. “So, they put in a motion, which the papers don’t write this, they put in a motion saying to take her—her name is “Tarloff” or something—take her out of the case. The reason they want her out of the case is she is a horrible, horrible, witness.”
Actually, the reason that Makaeff wants to “withdraw as class representative and named plaintiff,” as her February 8 motion states, is because Trump has used every means at his disposal to target her, in both the media and the courts. Since requesting the court’s permission to withdraw, a memo filed by Makaeff’s lawyers states, Trump has designated former acquaintances of hers as witnesses (which his lawyers have apparently not done for any of the three other class representatives) and argued in court documents that attacking Makaeff personally is the central focus of his defense “going so far as to say it ‘would cripple Defendants’ ability to defend this case’ if they cannot make these attacks against one of the 7,000 student-victims taken in by Trump’s scheme.” That is to say: Trump’s defense has been to try to make the focus on one class representative out of four, who in turn represent 7,000 people allegedly exploited by Trump University.
“Understandably, Makaeff wants her life back without living in fear of being disparaged by Trump on national television,” the memo states. “For Makaeff’s well-being and the dignity of these proceedings, the Court should grant her motion to withdraw.”
Early in the first deposition, the prosecution reads Trump a list of names of Trump University “live events instructors”—Trump’s “hand-picked” real estate experts. They wanted to know if he could confirm that any of them had, in fact, worked for Trump University, but in response to each, Trump says it’s been too many years, and he can’t remember who they are. In response to a question about whether he remembered one particular instructor, Don Sexton, Trump said, “I remember the name, but it’s many years ago. I’d have to check the facts.” Don Sexton, a professor of business at Columbia University, wrote two books for Trump University: Trump University: Marketing 101 and Trump University: Branding 101. The foreward and first chapter of the latter were written by Donald Trump.
In fact, Trump admitted that he never did anything to certify the Trump University mentors at all. (“Me personally? No.”) Nor did he do anything to confirm their expertise or qualifications. One former instructor declared that he knew barely anything about real estate when Trump University hired him. “He defrauded us, okay?” Trump said. “Sue him.”
What Trump did do was give instructors copies of the books that the real estate developer from Queens had written. As The Intercept’s Leighton Woodhouse points out, “In other words, students who paid as much as $60,000 to Trump University over the course of a year could have gotten the exact same information through a $10 book purchased on Amazon.”
In the second deposition, the plaintiff’s lawyers ask Trump about a pair of blog posts he wrote in March 2008 praising Bill and Hillary Clinton. In March 2008, he wrote, “I know Hillary, and I think she would make a great president or vice president.” More recently, of course, Trump has denigrated Hillary Clinton’s qualifications. He explained this by saying that at the time, he didn’t really think much about politics, or politicians, except to compliment them and get them on his good side. These days, “I’ve really started to watch and study politics as opposed to just thinking about business and not thinking about politics.”
“You want to always be friendly with politicians. If you’re a businessman, I’m a businessman, you always—you want to be as nice as you can to politicians whenever possible,” Trump testified. “You would rather have them on your side, politicians. When you’re in business, you would like to have the politicians on your side.” (We can only speculate why Trump did not bring this kind of magnanimity to his relationship with President Obama.)
The plaintiff’s lawyers also submitted a sworn statement from Corinne Sommer, who worked for Trump University from May 2007 to October 2007 as the manager of the Events Department. Sommer made her statement in September 2012, in support of the plaintiff’s class certification, and states her willingness to testify on their behalf:
I do not believe that Trump University taught Donald Trump’s investing “secrets.” Donald Trump came from a wealthy family and had resources at his disposal to purchase real estate—that is the secret—one that the average consumer could not replicate.
In a deposition later that year, Sommer testified that she had been fired from her position at Trump University because she was a military reservist. After she was fired, she sued Trump University, and they allegedly settled out of court.
Another recent court filing includes the transcript of one of those free, 90-minute seminars. The instructor, Keith Sperry, begins the seminar by asking participants questions about Donald Trump’s life. Those who answered his questions received a lottery ticket, as a reward.
“Which one is more expensive,” Sperry asked the crowd. “Being trained by Donald Trump, or the school of Hard Knocks?”
“Being trained by the school of Hard Knocks,” the crowd responded.
“Does that makes sense?” Sperry asked. “Yes,” they said.