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Economy & Business

Documents Reveal High-Pressure Sales Environment Inside Trump University

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Newly released documents detail the business practices behind one of Donald Trump's most controversial ventures, the for-profit Trump University. Now defunct, it promised to teach people how to make a killing in real estate. These documents are from one of multiple lawsuits. They show how instructors pressure people to spend money on classes even when they couldn't afford them. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: People who attended a free Trump University seminar were promised they could learn the secrets of Trump's real estate success. His hand-picked experts would guide them through the process of buying, financing and selling properties. But first, they had to sign up for a weekend course at a cost of nearly $1,500, and if they could afford it, they were encouraged to sign up for more expensive programs.

Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, is New York's attorney general. He has brought a suit against Trump University.

ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: Each stage of the process was just an effort to sell up to get the victims to buy more Trump seminars.

ZARROLI: The documents released yesterday spell out in minute detail how the seminars worked. Instructors were told how to dress, how tables and chairs should be configured, even what temperature the room should be. They were also taught aggressive sales techniques. They learned how to overcome people's resistance if they balked at spending money. And if customers didn't have enough money to attend classes, they were encouraged to max out on their credit cards.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio tried to make Trump University an issue during a Fox News debate last winter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCO RUBIO: People borrowed money, and they signed up for this fake university. And these people owe all of this money now, and they got nothing in return for it. But you're willing to say whatever you had to say to get them to give you their money.

ZARROLI: The documents released yesterday make clear that some instructors had reservations about what they were doing. One man said he was reprimanded for refusing to sell a class to a couple he didn't think could afford it. One woman said far from being experts hand-picked by Trump himself, the instructors actually knew little about real estate. Again, New York Attorney General Eric Snyderman...

SCHNEIDERMAN: Essentially every part of the pitch was false, and it's fraud to induce people to pay money based on false representations. And that's really the essence of the case. It's not a very tricky case.

ZARROLI: Trump himself appeared to have little direct involvement with the program. When customers asked if they could meet Trump, instructors replied that they would have to sign up for more expensive classes, such as the Gold Elite program, which cost $35,000. But Trump has been quick to defend the venture and even attacked the federal judge hearing the class-action suit against him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: This is a case I could've settled very easily, but I don't settle cases very easily when I'm right.

ZARROLI: Trump says a few disgruntled people may have complained about the program, but the vast majority of those attending filled out cards giving the classes very high ratings. Some students say they were strong-armed into doing so, however.

Trump also released a YouTube video today featuring satisfied customers extolling the program. In the past, Trump has insisted that the program received a top rating from the Better Business Bureau, a claim that Bureau official Claire Rosenzweig took issue with during a press conference in March.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLAIRE ROSENZWEIG: BBB received multiple customer complaints about the business. These complaints affected the Trump University BBB rating, which was as low as a D-minus in 2010.

ZARROLI: After yesterday's document dump, Hillary Clinton called the program a fraudulent scheme that was used to prey upon those who could least afford it. But similar efforts to exploit the controversy by republicans such as Rubio never seemed to get much traction, and it remains to be seen how much voters will care this time around. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.