Robert Guillo gave a glowing evaluation to his instructor at Trump University because, he said, the teacher pleaded for the best possible score, warning that without it, “Mr. Trump might not invite me back to teach again.”
Jeffrey Tufenkian offered excellent ratings because his Trump University-assigned mentor refused to leave the room until he did so, standing “right in front of me” as he filled out the evaluation form, he said.
John Brown tried to give his Trump University teacher a poor review — but said he was talked out of it by employees of the program, who called him three times, hounding him to raise his original scores.
“Tired of the continuing phone calls,” he later testified, “I finally gave in.” His dismal marks changed to top scores, Mr. Brown said.
In the sprawling business empire of Donald J. Trump, the real estate classes that bore his name seem to occupy a tiny, insignificant corner. But the controversy and litigation now enveloping them have taken on surprising potency in the Republican presidential campaign that he is dominating.
Now, as Mr. Trump tries to fend off claims of misleading and fraudulent practices from scores of former students, claims his opponents have brought up in debates and in ads, his biggest weapon is what appears to be the overwhelmingly positive reviews from past participants — a 98 percent level of satisfaction, in his telling. “Beautiful statements,” is how he describes the evaluations.
But hundreds of pages of legal documents, as well as interviews with former students and instructors, suggest the surveys themselves were a central component of a business model that, according to lawsuits and investigators, deceived consumers into handing over thousands of dollars with tantalizing promises of riches.
Donald J. Trump at a news conference in 2005 announcing the establishment of Trump University. Though the business no longer operates, Mr. Trump has vowed to bring it back. Credit Thos Robinson/Getty Images
Interviews and documents show that employees of Trump University at times applied pressure on students to offer favorable reviews, instructed them to fill out the forms in order to obtain their graduation certificates, and ignored standard practices used to ensure that the surveys were filled out objectively.
“It’s absolutely a con,” said Mr. Guillo, who spent $36,000 on Trump University classes and later requested a refund. “The role of the evaluations were a defense against any legal actions. They anticipated those actions.”
At the same time, students and their lawyers have raised doubts about Mr. Trump’s claim of 98 percent satisfaction. A website set up to defend Trump University, 98percentapproval.com, has published 10,000 student evaluations, but not all of them were from paying students. They include some from the more than 3,000 free guests that paying participants were encouraged to bring to the classes. More than 2,000 other students never made it to the end of their courses — they sought and received refunds before the end of their classes, as company policy allowed, according to court records.
In an interview, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, Daniel M. Petrocelli, said the experience of students who felt manipulated “is not representative of what happened across the board.”
“Folks were not coerced,” he said of the positive evaluations. “It’s completely implausible to suggest that the 10,000 reviews from the students and their guests were the result of pressure or coercion. They gave overwhelmingly positive reviews because they were being honest about their assessment.”
Mr. Trump has vowed to fight the litigation, which includes a class-action lawsuit in San Diego seeking refunds for former Trump University students, and a lawsuit from the New York attorney general. He has said the aggrieved former students are simply looking for easy money after having learned valuable lessons about how to buy and sell real estate, obtain financing and spot undervalued properties.
Though the business no longer operates, Mr. Trump has vowed to bring it back, giving it to his children to run if he is elected president.
As he campaigns across the country boasting about the Trump University success story, he and his lawyers have deployed the evaluations to try to undercut the claims of former students who say they regret paying for the courses, posting their reviews online and, in one instance, waving them in front of a camera.
The certificate that Mr. Guillo received from Trump University and a photo of himself at one of the seminars. Credit Andrew Renneisen for The New York Times
That was the case with Mr. Guillo, 76, who lives on Long Island and filed an affidavit in the New York case. After the former student criticized Trump University in a campaign commercial for a “super PAC” supporting Senator Marco Rubio, Mr. Trump uploaded a video to YouTube in which he produced a copy of Mr. Guillo’s positive evaluation. “All excellent,” Mr. Trump said of the scores. “One hundred percent.”
In court papers, a lawyer for Mr. Trump argued that another student suing the university “was either dishonest in his evaluations of Trump University, or the allegations in the complaint are false.”
By all accounts, student evaluations held a crucial place inside Trump University, where students signed up for real estate training programs with escalating costs that promised to teach the mogul’s techniques and wisdom. At free 90-minute introductory sessions, Trump University representatives marketed three-day workshops starting at $995; at those, more intensive programs were pitched, like “Trump Gold Elite,” whose price reached $35,000.
At the conclusion of every program, teachers instructed attendees to complete surveys, rating the experience on a scale of one to 5. But, in what academics and experts said were unusual practices, Trump University did not explicitly offer students anonymity on the forms, often asked them to complete the documents in the presence of instructors and, according to internal Trump University documents made public in litigation, asked students to submit the surveys in exchange for their graduation certificates.
“Does the word coercion come to mind?” asked Howard E. Haller, a former Trump University consultant who has worked in the education world for decades. In normal academic settings, he said, “No one knows if you even filled it out. The professor sure doesn’t know.”
Lawyers for Mr. Trump said students could elect not to put their names on the surveys, as some did. But they said the documents did not specify that doing so was an option.
Most evaluations, the lawyers added, were handed out by staff and completed in large classrooms where it was not possible for a teacher to influence the outcome.
Tad Lignell, a mentor in the more personalized, $35,000 program, said that a number of his students achieved financial success from the lessons he had taught them.
A sign directing participants to free introductory classes for Trump University held at a Holiday Inn in Arlington, Va., in 2009. Credit Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post, via Getty Images
But he conceded that the evaluation system made it uncomfortable for students to register their disapproval.
Assigned to demonstrate how to buy and sell real estate in places such as Las Vegas, Mr. Lignell routinely asked students to fill out the evaluations in front of him at restaurants or coffee shops, he said in an interview.
At that moment, he said, vulnerable students still needed and expected his guidance. “‘I want this guy to be my friend, I need his help,’” he said, summing up their mind-set as they filled out the forms.
He said that Trump University managers made clear that teachers with low ratings would be passed over in favor of those with high scores. “That puts an emphasis on getting 5,” he said. “If you wanted more students, you knew you needed those.”
(Mr. Lignell said that Trump University had failed to pay him for several students; the company’s lawyer did not comment on the claim. “If Trump wins the presidency,” Mr. Lignell said, “I’ve got a president who owes me $50,000.”)
Mr. Tufenkian, who enrolled in the $35,000 “Trump Gold Elite” program with his wife, Sona, to jump-start a career in real estate, said his mentor was adamant that he needed all 5s on his evaluation.
“He even said something like, ‘I won’t leave until you give me all 5s,’” recalled Mr. Tufenkian, who lives in Oregon. “When it was time to fill the evaluation out, he put it in front of me — right between the two of us on the table — and reiterated that he expected all 5s while he watched me.”
Mr. Tufenkian, who had just finished a three-day visit with his mentor, said he obliged because the program was supposed to be the start of a productive yearlong relationship. “Am I supposed to upset the guy who’s supposed to be helping me be successful?”
Not every student felt compelled. In court filings, lawyers for Mr. Trump introduced the testimony of students such as Amy Hinderer, who participated in the “Trump Gold Elite” program.
“Every rating I gave my mentor was always positive, and I still agree with what I said to this day,” she wrote.
Mr. Trump has dismissed the criticism that Trump University’s evaluation system encouraged positive reviews. Asked about the lack of anonymity, he said under oath in a January deposition, “I think it’s much better when a student puts their name on it.” Without names, he said, “they don’t mean anything, actually.”
Pressed on whether students might fear repercussions, Mr. Trump rejected the notion. “Only a lawyer could think of that,” Mr. Trump said, continuing, “You mean that’s why they said such great things about the school?”
He added: “I think they meant it was very good. Until they found out they could get their money back.”
But experts said such practices were designed to influence the evaluations.
“People don’t want a fight. People don’t want to be mean. People want to be nonconfrontational,” said John T. Reed, who was hired as a potential paid expert witness for the plaintiffs in one of the Trump lawsuits, but has no current role in the cases. “So they write a seminar evaluation, and hand it in, face-to-face.”
“That,” Mr. Reed added, “is where you get your 98 percent.”