Is It Finally Donald Trump’s Time to Pay Up?

Given Donald Trump’s general state of all-caps alarm, it’s not always easy to figure out which of the former President’s many grievances have most upset him. The idea that he is being unfairly persecuted is, after all, the clarion call of his candidacy. But it’s safe to say that the “BREAKING TRUMP ALERT” I received on Thursday represents something more than just a direct marketer’s frantic plea for cash to feed a cash-starved campaign. “KEEP YOUR FILTHY HANDS OFF OF TRUMP TOWER,” the e-mail demanded. The missive went on to explain that “insane radical Democrat AG Letitia James wants to SEIZE my properties in New York. THIS INCLUDES THE ICONIC TRUMP TOWER!” Theoretically, this might even be true someday.

Not surprisingly, Trump did not mention the reason that the signature property bearing his gold-emblazoned name might be at risk—he needs to pay the judgment in a New York civil fraud lawsuit that, including fines and interest, totals more than four hundred and fifty-four million dollars. If the former President and presumptive Republican nominee does not come up with a financial guarantee by Monday, James could begin seizing assets in order to collect on the money owed to the state. Earlier this week, Trump’s lawyers said it was a “practical impossibility” to meet the deadline, admitting that they had approached thirty companies to provide Trump with a bond and that all thirty had refused. Declaring bankruptcy is an option—one that Trump has resorted to multiple times in his checkered business career—but the former President’s resisting, for now. The bills, however, are mounting. In addition to the penalty for running a fraudulent business in New York, Trump owes another eighty-three million dollars for defaming the writer E. Jean Carroll after she accused him of sexual assault. With four criminal cases against the former President still pending and hordes of attorneys to pay, Trump’s leadership PAC reported in a new filing this week that it had burned through more than five million dollars in legal fees for him last month alone, which is more than the entirety of what the PAC took in.

The financial crisis stemming from Trump’s many legal woes, in other words, is also a campaign crisis for him. As the long general-election slog begins, the ex-President is running slightly ahead of Joe Biden in the polls but lagging substantially behind in fund-raising. Over all, Biden’s campaign reported ending February with more than seventy million dollars on hand; the Trump campaign, with $33.5 million, had less than half as much. Yet calling it a cash crunch understates the extent to which Trump’s loss in the New York case risks triggering a full-on identity crisis for the ex-President. Paying up will be painful; whether assets have to be sold or seized, it appears as though Trump does not have enough available cash to buy his way out of this case sacrifice-free. It is not at all inconceivable that, by the time the case is finally over, he may no longer possess that famously gaudy penthouse in his eponymous building, or even the building itself. As Thomas de Monchaux observed, in 2016, “not since Thomas Jefferson at Monticello or William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon has someone so near the summit of American political life been so closely identified with a single structure.” If Trump is no longer the billionaire owner of Trump Tower, or even a billionaire at all, then what, exactly, is he?

For Biden, he’s increasingly a punch line. At back-to-back fund-raising receptions on Wednesday in Texas, where Biden pulled in more than two million dollars in red-state cash, the President began what sounded like one of his trademark windy anecdotes, about a man who came up to him complaining of crushing debt. To which, Biden said he responded, “Donald, I can’t help you.” The crowd of wealthy Dallas donors—including the billionaire businessman Mark Cuban, a Republican who refuses to vote for Trump—cracked up.

What a week in America’s most bizarre campaign ever. And yes, I know: the 2020 election was also pretty damn crazy, what with the global pandemic and Trump fans storming the Capitol to stop Congress from certifying his loss. But this time the ex-President is not only repeating threats of violence if he loses again; he also faces the realistic possibility of both bankruptcy and prison time. If he sounds more frantic on the campaign trail, that’s probably because he is. For more than a year, the former President has been calling this election “the final battle” for America—an end-of-days apocalyptic message that seems calculated to appeal to the Republican Party’s evangelical-Christian base. It could also be interpreted as a very personal lament by Trump, who looks to end the year either as the world’s most powerful man, or as a bankrupted crook dodging creditors and criminal sentences. For him, 2024 could in fact turn out to be a final reckoning.

The slew of court cases is just one of the reasons that Trump may be weaker than the poll numbers currently suggest. Another underrated liability for him—as in 2020—may be the small but significant number of Republicans like Cuban who simply will not cast their ballots for Trump. Let’s stipulate that this cohort has proved to be much smaller and less influential inside the G.O.P. than one might have imagined, given Trump’s many offenses. Trump’s strongest Republican rival, Nikki Haley, dropped out after Super Tuesday, having lost her home state and every other one in which she competed except Vermont. Last summer, the Times reported that about a quarter of Republicans were potential “Not Trump” voters; but, in the end, the anti-Trump forces inside his party did not even muster that much. In Washington, the Republican establishment is so cowed that nearly all of its members have got in line behind Trump, even most of the G.O.P. elected officials, such as Mitch McConnell, who dared to condemn the ex-President when they thought, incorrectly, that January 6th spelled the end of his political career.

In a close general election, however, even a small subset of Republican refuseniks could make the difference. Recent indicators suggest they do exist. Earlier this month, in the potentially decisive battleground state of Michigan, Haley received around three hundred thousand votes. On Tuesday, even with Haley officially out of the race and Trump facing no actual opposition, voters in several states showed up to cast ballots against their party’s leader—about two hundred thousand of them in both Ohio and Florida. The Republican strategist Sarah Longwell still believes that up to thirty per cent of Republicans might not vote for Trump in the fall. “Of course, some of these voters are going to go home to Trump,” she told me. “Some have already supported Biden in 2020. But there are also new two-time Trump voters who are open to voting against him in November, even if they have an unfavorable opinion of Joe Biden. These are the voters who are the margin makers and will decide the 2024 election.”

I don’t want to overstate this. Most public polls currently show that Trump has consolidated support from self-identified Republican voters more than Biden has pulled together his Democratic base. But it’s worth remembering that Trump beat Hillary Clinton by just ten thousand votes in Michigan in 2016. This year, much attention has been paid to Democratic voters in that state who are unhappy with Biden’s support for Israel in its war in Gaza. Trump’s vulnerability in his own party there has received far less scrutiny.

All of which is why one of the week’s more underrated events might have been last Friday’s announcement by Trump’s former Vice-President, Mike Pence, that he will not support Trump this fall. When Pence told Fox News that “profound differences” meant that he could not support Trump, it was the first time since the Second World War, when John Nance Garner said Franklin Roosevelt should not run for a third term, that a Vice-President had so publicly refused to endorse the President he served. Maybe it won’t matter. Pence’s fortunes inside the G.O.P. sank after he defied Trump on January 6, 2021, and certified Biden’s Electoral College victory; as a 2024 Presidential candidate, he flopped so quickly that he never even made it to the primary balloting.

But Pence joins a long list of former Administration officials who have spoken out against the ex-President: Trump’s chiefs of staff John Kelly and Mick Mulvaney; his Defense Secretaries Jim Mattis and Mark Esper; his Attorney General Bill Barr; his national-security advisers H. R. McMaster and John Bolton. These are hardly exemplars of the leftist Deep State. In 2021, the pro-Trump mob, inflamed against the Vice-President by Trump himself, shouted “Hang Mike Pence!” Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for Trump to pay up. ♦

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