HBO’s John Oliver Gleefully Skewers Trump University’s Salesmanship

June 6, 2016, 1:34 PM UTC
John Oliver Trump University
John Oliver skewers Trump University.
Screenshot YouTube/HBO John Oliver

Near the outset of Sunday’s broadcast of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver puckishly decried Donald Trump as “a punchline that is quickly becoming a nightmare.” But given the constant thrum of chaos, opprobrium and delicious absurdity that surrounds the GOP standard bearer as he moves closer to securing his party’s nomination in July, it’s probably more accurate to say the British satirist considers Trump a comedic gift that keeps on giving.

Why else would Oliver devote 13 and a half minutes—almost twice the time he normally allots to recapping news events on the show—to a blistering mini-takedown detailing “new developments in Trump-related litigation”?

The host seemed borderline gleeful introducing a recent USA Today report that found Trump and his businesses have been involved in at least 3,500 lawsuits over three decades—an unprecedented volume for a presidential nominee but also a legal backlog more befitting something like Big Tobacco than any one man with a brand.

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“If each lawsuit involving Trump were the basis for an episode of Law & Order, they could sustain all 456 episodes of the original,” Oliver noted, “all 389 episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, all 195 episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent and all 22 episodes of Law & Order: Los Angeles.

“As well as,” he continued, “every episode of The Practice, Ally McBeal, LA Law, Boston Legal, Night Court, The Good Wife, Matlock, JAG, Perry Mason, Judging Amy, The Guardian, The Public Defender, Owen Marshal, Counselor at Law; Harry’s Law, Courthouse, Suits, Family Law, Sweet Justice, 1971’s The D.A., 2004’s The D.A., Reasonable Doubts, Damages, Shark, The Defenders, The Paper Chase, Head Cases, Judd for the Defense and all three episodes of NBC’s First Years.”

And at that point you’re still missing one lawsuit,” Oliver said. “But you’ve also run out of television shows about lawyers. Meaning Trump’s lawsuits exceed the limits of the fucking genre!”

Judgement issues

In recent days, however, Cohen v Trump, a lawsuit alleging the billionaire’s for-profit Trump University committed fraud and deception, has captured headlines and diverted attention from his self-promotions on the campaign trail. In turn, Trump has gone on the attack. And over the weekend, he found himself in the hot seat for lobbing invective against the federal judge overseeing the case, Gonzalo Curiel, questioning the judge’s fitness for the appointment because of Curiel’s perceived ethnic background.

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“I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump,” Trump said at a campaign rally in San Diego last week, prompting a chorus of boos. “And he is not doing the right thing…The judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican—which is great. I think that’s fine.”

“You do, do you? You think that’s fine,” said Oliver. “Great news, people of Mexican descent. Donald Trump thinks it’s fine for you to be a human being existing on this planet.”

He went on to point out an inconvenient truth about the judge—Curiel was born in Indiana—and broadcast a segment of Trump’s Friday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper to underscore what Oliver called the candidate’s “bigotry.”

“You’re invoking his race in talking about whether or not he can do his job,” Tapper asked Trump on Sunday.

“Jake, I’m building a wall, OK?” Trump said. “I’m trying to keep business out of Mexico.”

Tapper: “But he’s an American.”

Trump: “He’s of Mexican heritage. And he’s very proud of it. As I am of where I come from.”

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Oliver seemed unable to resist the comedic opening such a remark presented. “Where exactly are you from? Because you look like you came out of a clogged drain at the Wonka factory,” he exclaimed in mock dialogue with the candidate. “And that’s great—I think that’s fine.”

Sleazy salesmanship

Trump’s sour grapes toward Curiel can certainly be traced back to last week, when the judge unsealed nearly 400 pages of documents revealing aggressive practices that Trump University sales people were encouraged to use to convince potential students to enroll in real estate seminars.

Among those documents was a “playbook” containing instructions on how to up-sell students (referred to as “buyers”) on courses costing tens of thousands of dollars. “Even to single mothers with three children who ‘may need money for food,’” according to a report by Fox News anchor Shepard Smith that was shown on Last Week Tonight.

“Money, is never a reason for not enrolling in Trump University; if they really believe in you and your product they will find the money. You are not doing any favor by letting someone use lack of money as an excuse,” the playbook allegedly says.

The playbook also advises: “You must be very aggressive. If they complain about the price, remind them that Trump is the BEST.”

“You might laugh,” said Oliver. “But that is the same technique Trump has been using to run for president. And apparently, it fucking works!”

Selling feelings

Perhaps most incriminating, the playbook includes specific instructions about what to do “If an attorney general arrives on the scene.” “Believe it or not, the answer is not kick over a table, cause a distraction and get the fuck out of there,” Oliver joked. “No! Apparently you ‘contact April’ immediately. And it reminds you, you do not have to show them any personal information unless they have a warrant. Which is suspicious advice for a university employee. I’m pretty sure Harvard doesn’t tell its new professors, ‘Welcome! Here’s a gun and a cyanide capsule in case the feds show up. Don’t let them take you alive!”

For his part, Trump has broadly and consistently denied the claims in the lawsuit, insisting, “98% of the people that took the courses approved the courses. They thought they were terrific.”

(According to plaintiffs, the reason those numbers are so high is the surveys were not anonymous and were filled out “when participants were still expecting to receive future benefits from the program.”)

But for Oliver, Trump’s legal limbo ultimately provides penetrating insight into the candidate’s political M.O. “[P]erhaps the most valuable lesson to come out of Trump University is the one that it is giving all of us in what’s behind Trump’s campaign strategy,” the host said. “Because the playbook tells his sales people, ‘You don’t sell products, benefits or solutions—you sell feelings.’ And that is what is happening now.”

“Crowds at a Trump rally may not be able to point at a benefit or a solution he offers,” he continued. “But they know how he makes them feel. And that is jacked up and ready to boo any name that sounds vaguely Latino. So if you are planning to vote for Trump in November, I’d like to direct you to an old quote from the top of the Trump University home page: ‘Take the risk, but before you do, learn what you’re getting yourself into.’ Donald, I could not have said it better myself!”

Watch the full segment below:



Chris Lee is a former staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He covers entertainment, culture and business in Los Angeles.