Trump's bond we reduced to nearly half. Credit: Gage Skidmore

This week, as Donald Trump was running up against the very real possibility that the state would begin seizing his assets to pay an almost half-billion-dollar bond after a state judge found his businesses had engaged in fraudulent practices, an appeals court stepped in to give him more time and lower his bond to a much more manageable $175 million.

I try not to write about Trump and his travails very often, if only because his trials and his campaign of vengeance are already heavily covered (even if the coverage itself can be regularly underwhelming in its reflexive tendency to treat his ever more overt fascism nonchalantly). Given the deluge, I figure my efforts are best used talking about safety in the subways, the whiplash of the city’s budget cuts and reinstatements, or even the growth of the MAGA movement from a local perspective.

This development, though, really threw me. For one, the order provides no reasoning whatsoever; the whole thing is two pages and the relevant section is a single paragraph noting, simply, that significant portions of the prior judgment are stayed. Not only is the bond amount reduced to much less than half, but prohibitions against Trump, his children, and other executives serving as officers or directors of New York-based corporate entities and seeking loans from New York financial institutions are also stayed.

Trump has to pay $175M in civil fraud judgment. Credit: Brad_T

To put that into plain language, the lower court found that the Trump Organization, at the direction of executives including Trump himself, had lied to lenders and committed acts of fraud that netted hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal profits. That resulted in Trump being ordered to pay back the ill-gotten gains with interest and being blocked from running any corporate entities for several years. If he was unable to post a bond in the amount of that judgment while the case gets appealed up the chain, Trump would have begun to get his assets seized — not only his properties, but other types of business and potentially personal income.

Now, the appellate court is simply saying that this won’t be necessary. Why? Who knows; the five judges note only that they issued the order “upon reading and filing the papers with respect to the motion, and due deliberation having been had.” The only parts not stayed by the appellate court are those relating to a monitor and independent director of compliance appointed by the court to scrutinize the company’s continued business dealings and ensure compliance with the ruling and the law. As far as I can tell, nobody has heard of a New York appellate court going to the mat for an individual civil defendant like this in any other case, without any clear reason or necessity.

To state the obvious, Trump is not a particularly sympathetic defendant. He’s more or less alternated over the years between claiming everyone commits fraud, he didn’t commit the fraud, the whole trial is politically motivated, the judge and his clerk are Democrats conspiring against him, and on and on. This isn’t a criminal case; Trump isn’t facing prison time here like he is in the various criminal trials against him, so you couldn’t even say that the judges thought it would be overly punitive to jail him as the appeal goes forward (and, it should be noted, conservatives in New York have spent years clawing back at the state’s bail reforms to prevent the jailing of those unable to afford bond).

Trump is not a particularly sympathetic defendant. Credit: Gage Skidmore

So what is it, then? The judges would never admit this, and in fact I imagine the jurists might not even consciously realize it, but the Occam’s razor explanation here is that Trump is simply special, just as he has been for his entire life of grift. Yes, the evidence is overwhelming, and yes, Trump neither expressed remorse nor even any awareness of the problem here, but why should the laws apply to him when they rarely have before?

A good chunk of the commentary so far around this has taken the tack that this is the result of elites — as appeals court judges certainly are —closing ranks around fellow elites. Shark Tank television personality Kevin O’Leary has now notoriously gone on a tour of hysterics over the judgment, claiming that every developer commits fraud and that efforts to seize Trump’s assets are not only unfair but somehow fundamentally threaten the United States’ global economic power. It’s possible that the judges — all appointed by Democratic governors — simply felt the heat of one percenters at dinner parties complaining bitterly about the possibility that they might be expected to follow the law.

That seems like a strong possibility, but as infuriating as that explanation would be, I have found myself unsettled by the specter of another motivator: fear. I don’t necessarily mean the judges themselves having a direct concern that they’d be harmed — though it’s hard to overstate the degree to which political violence has been normalized in the Trump era, and judges dealing with January 6 and Trump-related cases have faced avalanches of death threats — but that holding Trump accountable in some meaningful way might harm the country.

Political violence has been normalized. Credit: little plant

This public preoccupation was perhaps most acute in the discussions around whether states could take Trump off the ballot under the Fourteenth Amendment, which notes among other things that “no person shall… hold any office, civil or military, under the United States… who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States… to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same.” After the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Trump could be kept off the ballot, the case was shunted up to the federal Supreme Court.

The actual questions of law were somewhat technical, including the mind-numbing procedural discussion over whether the president technically counts as an “officer of the United States.” Yet a lot of the public discussion around the prospect of removing Trump from the ballot under the rather clear provisions of the amendment wasn’t really about the law, but the potential that it would unleash the type of political violence and national rupture that many of his followers seem to be champing at the bit for. As I wrote a couple of weeks back, the MAGA project writ large doesn’t see itself as a fundamentally electoral one; it’s a project by any means necessary, with democracy as only one of the tools in the arsenal, and increasingly a disfavored one.

Just this week, it emerged that the leaders of a federal election security task force would not be publicly named, as they had been in prior years, due to concerns that they could be targeted with threats and harassment over efforts to merely ensure that our elections are secure. Yesterday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — the point man for many of the state’s legal efforts to create its own immigration policy, among other things, making him a MAGA darling — reached a deal to avoid a long-delayed trial for three felony counts of securities fraud, netting just some community service and a restitution fine. I doubt most other defendants would have gotten this option.

We’re left here with an approach that sounds absurd if you just break it down to its basic elements: to preserve our democracy, we have to give the anti-democratic side extreme leeway, lest they resolve to just torch it all down. I don’t know for sure that this undergirded the appeals court’s decisions, but it seems like a strong undercurrent in the decisions made around holding Trump accountable.

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Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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  1. This article is completely correct. If you have popularity and are of the elite class, the laws do not apply to you. You get treated as if you are the untouchable. What has happened to Justice for all.

  2. There was a Rap Group, “Public Enemy,” that explained it all, back in 1988. Whether Democrats, or Republicans, and especially, Donald J. Trump, “Don’t, don’t, don’t believe the HYPE.”

  3. Believe it or not most politicians find the public abhorrent, P. T. Barnum, said, “there a sucker born every minute.” W. C. Fields, said,” never give a sucker a even break. ” Who is that sucker? Here he is coming down the street right now. His name John Q. Public.

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