December 16, 2007
Donald Trump wasn't happy with Wednesday's column about his seminars on profiting from the foreclosure market.
I know this because I was instructed by his executive assistant to give Trump a call after the column ran, and when Trump came on the line, he told me that my work was "inaccurate and libelous."
I asked what specifically was the problem.
"You'll find out in court," Trump replied, adding that he was going to sue my derriere off. Actually, he used a three-letter word that wasn't French.
Trump subsequently spoke with my boss and said, among other things, that I'm a "nasty guy" and third-rate reporter. My boss told me afterward not to take the criticism to heart. He said I'm at least a second-rate reporter.
Trump then submitted a letter, which he said he wanted published in extra-large print. I'll share some excerpts below in the standard print size. You can find the entire thing online at latimes.com/lazarus, and you can enlarge it if you want.
First, a quick recap.
The column in question involved a seminar held recently at the Pasadena Hilton. It was one of a number of such events held in the region by Trump University, Trump's online business school, founded in 2005.
An ad in this paper quoted Trump as saying that "investors nationwide are making millions in foreclosures . . . and so can you!" It also promised two hours of "priceless information . . . all for free."
As I learned by attending the seminar, the event was a two-hour sales pitch for a three-day workshop that would cost people $1,495. The workshop, we were told, would provide instruction in a variety of techniques for securing distressed properties at below-market prices and then selling them to others for more money.
I quoted the Trump University instructor, Steve Goff, as saying that the goal isn't to take advantage of other people's misfortune; it's to help people. But I observed that such deals involve getting a better price for someone's house than the seller was able to get, which is more like helping yourself.
I also pointed out that real estate professionals say it's all too easy for novices to lose their shirts in the foreclosure market. Still, there's no shortage of interest, as evidenced by a story on The Times' front page last week about bus tours of distressed properties in Stockton.
After my column ran, I received dozens of e-mails from people who'd attended similar Trump University seminars and said they'd been surprised by the $1,495 cost for actual information on real estate transactions. Dozens more e-mails reiterated the risk of trying to make money from foreclosures.
Paul Thomas, a real estate auctioneer in Seattle, wrote that he's "constantly horrified by the number of complete neophytes who attend seminars like these and then get themselves in ever-deepening trouble, all the while 'helping' other people by taking advantage of them."
The column included a pretty flattering photo of Trump standing before a poster of himself at a recent event.
In his letter, Trump seemed particularly upset with my observation that his "primary claim to fame these days has been hosting 'The Apprentice' on TV." He wasted no time rebutting this notion.
"I am worth many billions of dollars, am building large-scale developments all over the world, am considered by many to be, by far, the hottest name in real estate," Trump wrote, "and I have to read an article by a third-rate reporter in your newspaper that my 'primary claim to fame' is hosting 'The Apprentice.' "
Show of hands: How many people think of Donald Trump as, by far, the hottest name in real estate? How many think of him as the guy who fires people on TV?
"Unlike many other people that make their money giving seminars," Trump continued, "I made my money in real estate and, as your reporter should have known, I never filed for bankruptcy."
He noted that his Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes is "one of the most successful and highly rated golf courses in the state of California," and that he bought it for "a mere fraction of its current worth."
The success of Trump's golf course notwithstanding, I never said that he filed for bankruptcy. I wrote in my column that his businesses have filed for bankruptcy protection, which they did, in 1991 and 2004.
Clearly I made a poor impression on Trump. He said in his letter that I "sounded like a real 'wise-guy,' " and that "there are too many such people in the otherwise wonderful profession of journalism."
With the likes of me around, Trump said, he can see why the L.A. Times "is a newspaper in a tailspin -- both from an advertising and circulatory standpoint." He suggested the paper would do much better by "getting rid of your 'bad apples' like this."
But all was not lost. Trump added in a postscript: "The picture, however, was great!"
Was I a wise guy when I spoke with Trump? I don't think so. I addressed him as "Mr. Trump" throughout our conversation and asked what I thought were fairly straightforward questions. Trump stayed on the phone with me for about 20 minutes before excusing himself to attend a business meeting.
I'm sorry that bad apples such as myself are dragging down the otherwise wonderful profession of journalism, although I'm not sure how much credit I can take for The Times' advertising and "circulatory" woes, having been here only about five months. But I'm sorry about that too.
At least Trump and I agree on one thing: It was a great picture of him.
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