trump civil hearing
'Oh my goodness did he catch a break': See ex-prosecutor's reaction to Trump decision
01:52 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: W. James Antle III is executive editor of the Washington Examiner magazine and author of “Devouring Freedom: Can Government Ever Be Stopped?” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Former President Donald Trump, facing a deadline to post a $464 million bond no one would give him, caught a break from a state appeals court Monday that cut the bond demand in his civil fraud case to $175 million due within the next 10 days. The action may also spare Democrats backlash from voters who would be incensed at the potential seizure of Trump’s assets.

W. James Antle III

Trump became an A-list celebrity as a symbol of extreme, almost gaudy wealth. His reputation for business acumen and ability to manage a massive real estate empire played a large role in why many voters were willing to entrust the presidency to a political neophyte in 2016.

Therefore, it’s easy to see how it could be embarrassing for Trump, as he seeks to return to the White House, to be unable to pay when the bond deadline came due. This is especially true now that Trump has more time to pay much less money (he declared he will post the new lower amount “in cash or bonds or security or whatever is necessary very quickly”). It runs counter to his carefully cultivated public image that predates, but certainly enabled, his political career. The New York civil fraud case raises questions about how Trump acquired much of his wealth in the first place.

But the confiscation of Trump’s assets – or the threat of seizures – could also rally voters to his side in much the same way his other legal problems appear to have helped him in the Republican primaries. People often don’t like to see people’s bank accounts and properties seized, and this alone could engender sympathy for the candidate. But Trump is in a unique position as someone seen as a victim of the political class and a defender of his voters against similar attacks.

Trump is no longer just a rich celebrity businessman running for president. He is a former president who has now spent nearly a decade as the titular head of the Republican Party. Moreover, he is the leader of a populist political movement that sees itself as being under assault from elites.

To many of those voters, Trump is now himself under attack from Democratic prosecutors in multiple jurisdictions, and the former president stoked this perception by calling his prosecution a “witch hunt,” “hoax” and “pure case of voter intimidation and election interference” outside a Monday hearing in his separate criminal hush-money case, in which jury selection is scheduled to begin April 15. First, these voters say, they tried to take away his freedom in multiple indictments. Now they see the legal system taking away his businesses and money. They don’t see New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is a Democrat and brought the fraud case, as an honest broker, but rather a partisan political figure.

“An Associated Press analysis of nearly 70 years of civil cases under [New York] law showed that such a penalty has only been imposed a dozen previous times,” the AP reported earlier this year as the extent of the penalty loomed, “and Trump’s case stands apart in a significant way: It’s the only big business found that was threatened with a shutdown without a showing of obvious victims and major losses.”

The belief that a “two-tiered” system of justice is being “weaponized” against conservatives, Republicans and ordinary citizens has resonated in the GOP primaries this year. The presumptive Republican nominee’s campaign is banking on this continuing to be the case as we head toward the general election.

My inbox is filled with fundraising appeals asking donors to help stop James from taking Trump Tower. Legal moves to seize Trump’s New York properties will anger his base, possibly make him a sympathetic figure to other voters and once again help him dominate the airwaves without his campaign spending a dime on advertising, all variables that have benefited him in the past.

The general election isn’t the Republican primary, to be sure. Non-Republicans take most of the charges against Trump more seriously, polls suggest. Nevertheless, there are strong indicators that this is shaping up to be a “base election,” as presidential races since 2000 have often been. That means the two major-party candidates are roughly deadlocked and each has a real chance of winning. The election will be decided largely by which campaign is best able to turn out core supporters, so any issues that mobilize the candidates’ bases will be crucial.

Trump’s political standing may be boosted by the perception among even some observers outside of GOP and pro-Trump circles that he is the victim of legal overreach.

“The essence of Trump’s argument on appeal is that the supposed harm he caused was minimal at best – all his lenders were repaid – and that the penalty levied against him was therefore wildly excessive,” wrote liberal Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. “The conundrum is that the very size of the judgment, and the consequent size of the bond that Trump is required to post, might make him unable to appeal. Trump could pursue his case, but in the meantime, James would be entitled to seize and sell off the former president’s assets.”

“That can’t be right,” she concluded.

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“To me, putting up all the cash upfront before you appeal the case seems draconian for everyone, not just Trump,” progressive – and staunchly anti-Trump – commentator Cenk Uygur said on his show The Young Turks. “But what if he wins the appeal? So you made him sell all of his properties to get the collateral, but then he can’t buy them back. … So when his lawyer says ‘irreparable harm,’ in this case, financially speaking, it would be irreparable harm.”

These takes may not be shared among the half of Americans who believe Trump is guilty of the falsifying business records charges brought in his separate New York criminal case. But if some commentators on the left see potential asset seizures in his civil case as unfair, many of the voters still winnable for Trump could easily regard this as an outrage. Conservatives and angry independents who see New York’s actions against Trump as a reason to pull the lever for him in November could ultimately decide the election.

If so, Trump could once again turn a legal and personal setback into a political windfall.