This week U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel unsealed 400 pages worth of documents related to two class-action lawsuits filed against Donald Trump’s real-estate seminar, Trump University, by students who say they were defrauded by the program.
Among the documents released were a sales playbook that described the “roller coaster of emotions” potential student-buyers would experience, including the exact moment their emotional state would render them most likely to purchase more Trump products.
Several former employees testified to the high-pressure sales techniques they were instructed to use — for example, guidance on how students might raise their credit card limits in order to finance more expensive Trump University classes than they could afford.
“While Trump University claimed it wanted to help consumers make money in real estate, in fact Trump University was only interested in selling every person the most expensive seminars they possibly could,” one former sales director, Ronald Schnackenberg, said in his testimony.
Most of the instructors and mentors, Schnackenberg said, had no background in real estate, and many came to Trump University through a man named Mark Dove, who he said “essentially owns that ‘front-end high-pressure speaker scam’ world.”
In his testimony, Schnackenberg recalls the moment he realized the company was engaging in “misleading, fraudulent, and dishonest” behavior. It was April 2007, and he was introduced to a couple that was relying on disability insurance.
“After the hard-sell sales presentation, they were considering purchasing the $35,000 Elite program,” Schnackenberg said. “I did not feel it was an appropriate program for them because of their precarious financial condition — they had no money to pay for the program, but would have had to pay for the program using his disability income and taking out a loan based upon equity in his apartment. Trump University reprimanded me for not trying harder to sell the program to this couple.”
Another salesperson, whom Schnackenberg identified as Tad Lignell, eventually closed the deal anyway. “I was disgusted by this conduct and decided to resign,” Schnackenberg later said.
Lignell, reached by Rolling Stone, says he doesn’t recall this particular incident and is skeptical of some of the details in Schnackenberg’s memory. “I’m a pretty laid-back guy and I would never drag people across the finish line,” he says. “If they can’t afford it, I would never do it.”
But in many other ways, Lignell’s memory of Trump University does match Schnackenberg’s. The 63-year-old says more often than not he acted as a mentor to Trump University students, rather than the salesman selling mentorship services. His experience provides a peek inside the program and how it was run.
Lignell, who lives in Utah, has a personal interest in real estate — he says he owns several rental properties and regularly “flips” houses for a profit — but he has no formal education or any kind of license. His background is in motivational speaking.
Lignell says he knew Mark Dove prior to joining Trump University, but he can’t say for sure if it was Dove who brought him on board. “The seminar business is kind of a small world. People know each other, so when Trump was building his business or starting his business, they were looking for a team,” he says; word got around.
After he signed on, he wasn’t provided with much training specific to Trump University, either. “We had some training and we had their manuals and stuff, but, you know, there wasn’t a strict guideline that told us how to [operate],” Lignell says. “We had basically PowerPoints of the things we were to cover.”