Trump’s Next Obsession: Bill Clinton and Laureate Universities
Policy + Politics

Trump’s Next Obsession: Bill Clinton and Laureate Universities

REUTERS/Dominick Reuter

In his uncharacteristically scripted victory speech Tuesday night, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump signaled that on Monday he will launch an attack on his Democratic counterpart, Hillary Clinton, and her husband, former president Bill Clinton. Calling the Clintons “corrupt” and accusing them of “selling government contracts” Trump said his “major speech” would cover “all of the things that have taken place with the Clinton.”

Trump is still reeling from multiple missteps in his handling of the controversy surrounding the now-defunct Trump University, and for that reason his remarks on Monday are likely to touch heavily on a little-known education company called Laureate International Universities, particularly Bill Clinton’s lucrative five-year run as “honorary chancellor” of the string of for-profit schools, a gig that paid him nearly $16.5 million, or about $3.3 million per year.

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Laureate International Universities is a subsidiary of Baltimore-based Laureate Education, which itself grew out of Sylvan Learning Centers. Over the past decade and more, Laureate has bought up small private universities around the world and brought them under centralized management.

Backed by a who’s who of well-known investors, including prominent Democratic Party supporter George Soros and top Republican fundraisers Henry Kravis and Steven Cohen, Laureate has 80 different programs under its umbrella in 28 different countries. In addition to private investors, the World Bank’s investment arm has plowed some $150 million into Laureate, praising its ability to turn struggling schools around.

Former president Clinton’s five-year deal with Laureate involved him traveling to at least 19 different campuses to deliver speeches, and also gave Laureate access to programs funded or otherwise backed by the Clinton Global Initiative. The deal, which began in the spring of 2010, was conveniently timed to expire just as Hillary Clinton prepared to officially announce her candidacy for the White House.

The affiliation with Laureate may be embarrassing for the Clintons in several ways. First off, while Bill Clinton was making millions from Laureate, the company was also listed as a sponsor of the Clinton Global Initiative and a donor to the Clinton Foundation, creating at least the impression of Clinton using his non-profit activities as a means of self-enrichment.

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Additionally, Bill Clinton’s time as honorary chancellor of Laureate overlapped the final two years of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. In 2012, her final year at State, a non-profit foundation run by Laureate’s founder saw its grants from the federal government, including State, increase by nearly $11 million. This creates the impression, though not the proof, of a quid pro quo arrangement.

Also, Hillary Clinton has been a vocal supporter of the Obama administration’s crackdown on for-profit educational institutions in the U.S., many of which have shockingly low graduation rates and often leave students deeply in debt and without a degree. That creates some awkwardness around the $16.5 million her husband took from what Bloomberg describes as the world’s largest for-profit education company.

It should be noted, however, that Laureate is not generally seen as one of the bad actors in the for-profit education space. The company has definitely been accused of putting profits ahead of students in some cases. But it can also boast that some of its schools are among the most highly-ranked by independent government analysts in their home countries.

As Laureate looks to be dragged into the conversation about Trump University, it’s important to point out that there are some notable differences between the two operations. Most notable is that Laureate operates accredited, degree-granting institutions.  A bachelor’s or master’s degree from one of Laureate’s schools is a legitimate academic credential, albeit one whose practical value is tied to the reputation of the particular school granting it. (But this is not unique -- graduates of Princeton and the local state college down the road might both have bachelor’s degrees in economics, but employers and other academic programs will weight them differently.)

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The same cannot be said for Trump University, which was not in any real sense an institution of higher learning, and certainly didn’t confer its graduates with an actual degree.

Trump is facing multiple lawsuits from former students of Trump University, which in reality was a business launched a decade ago to sell classes and seminars on real estate investing and financial management, all heavily branded with the Trump name and logo. Documents released last week detail the high-pressure sales tactics the company applied to sometimes vulnerable consumers. Using promises of financial independence and wealth, salespeople were taught to persuade buyers to exhaust their savings and go into debt in order to pay for ever-more-expensive classes.

Trump has obviously been stung by attacks on the business, which cut to the heart of his public image as a smart and successful businessman. Democrats, as well as the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, have used the documents from the trial to paint an alternate picture of him as a greedy fraud, willing to exploit the vulnerable for a profit.

In launching his attack on the Clintons, Trump can be expected to push the idea that Hillary and her supporters are all hypocrites for attacking him while supporting her, simultaneously damaging Clinton and deflecting criticism from himself.

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For political rhetoric geeks, the roll-out of Trump’s newest attack on Clinton will be a real-time example of a politician deploying what logicians call the “tu quoque” fallacy -- a rhetorical gambit in which the speaker tries to discredit an attack on himself not by refuting it on the merits, but by implying that the attacker is a hypocrite.

Whether or not Trump will accomplish his aim of creating some sort of equivalence between Laureate International Universities and Trump University remains to be seen. What’s certain, though, is that attempting to tar the Clintons as participants in a shady for-profit educational company won’t do anything to dispel the mounting evidence that Trump University was a giant scam. It will also help drag the 2016 presidential race even deeper into the mud.