Long before Trump University fell in the crosshairs of Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, one of Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans drew a bead on the now-defunct school: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Abbott, then the state’s attorney general, opened an investigation into the real-estate seminar business in 2010 raising many of the issues now reverberating in the white-hot race for the White House. Trump University ultimately closed up shop in Texas, leaving in its wake an untold number of people like Steven Branton of Mesquite — former students who were enticed by the Trump brand, only to discover a program wrought with high-pressure sales tactics and unfulfilled promises.
“It was just nonsense — I don’t know how else to say it,” Branton said, recalling how one of the seminars he went to seemed to take advantage of attendees who were not as financially able to afford them as he was at the time. “There were people in that room — I guarantee you, they were talking about giving him everything they had.”
Trump has fiercely defended the school against persistent criticisms from Clinton, who said Wednesday the billionaire “is trying to scam America the way he scammed all those people at Trump University.” He has said he will prevail in class-action lawsuits against the business and on Thursday took his confidence a step further, pledging to re-open Trump University if he becomes president.
In Texas, the Trump University probe was never fully fleshed out after the school quickly pulled out of the state. But in at least one letter to Trump’s attorneys, Abbott’s office said it found the promises the school was making to its students “virtually impossible to achieve.”
A former deputy chief of Abbott’s consumer protection division, John Owens, claims that his bosses nixed a request to sue Trump University for illegal business practices. A memo dated May 11, 2010, and provided to the Tribune and other news organizations, shows that Owens and his colleagues wanted to ask Trump University for a $5.4 million settlement.
“It was swept under the rug, and the consumers were left with no one to go to bat for them,” Owens told The Texas Tribune.
“The Texas Attorney General’s office investigated Trump U, and its demands were met — Trump U was forced out of Texas and consumers were protected,” responded Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch.
More than three years after Trump University effectively ceased operations in Texas, Trump made two contributions to Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign, one for $25,000 in July 2013 and the other for $10,000 in May 2014. To this day, the donations to Abbott represent Trump’s only substantial foray into Texas politics — and enduring fodder for Abbott critics like the state Democratic Party, which charged Thursday that the governor is “on the corrupt Trump payroll.”
In a statement Thursday, hours after the Associated Press published a story drawing new attention to the donations, Abbott’s office brushed off the conspiracy theory.
“The unthinkable has happened — the media’s obsession with Donald Trump is now leading them to highlight the job then-Attorney General Abbott did in protecting Texas consumers,” Hirsch said.
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