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Saturday, April 06, 2024

Why Donald Trump’s bond saga is so enraging

Why Donald Trump’s bond saga is so enraging

The leniency shown Trump makes for grim reading in contrast to the fate of thousands of other Americans.

“Larry Price Jr. weighed 185 pounds in the summer of 2020, when he entered the Sebastian County, Arkansas, jail where he would die. When guards found him deceased a year later, he was alone in his cell, lying in contaminated water and his own urine and weighing 121 pounds. As the word “jail” suggests, he had not been convicted of a crime. Nor was Price, who suffered from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, detained because of the crime he was accused of — verbally threatening police officers. No, Price died in jail because he could not afford a $100 bond for his release.

I thought of Price again this week when news broke Thursday that attorneys for former President Donald Trump had to resubmit his $175 million bond in his civil fraud judgment in New York to address missing financial statements and other documentation. And after that resubmission, New York Attorney General Letitia James questioned whether the bond underwriter actually had the $175 million in collateral, giving Knight Specialty Insurance Co. 10 days to come up with proof. This all comes roughly two weeks after a New York appeals court reduced Trump’s bond from over $450 million to $175 million, after Trump’s lawyers argued that securing the larger amount was a “practical impossibility.”

Debating whether Trump’s situation reflects the current law misses the point.

The leniency shown Trumpmakes for grim reading in contrast to the fate of Price — and thousands of other Americans. A 2020 Reuters report found that between 2008 and 2019, nearly 5,000 Americans died in 500 U.S jails without ever being convicted of the charges on which they were held, in many cases because they could not afford bail. People like Kalief Browder ($3,000 bail), Sandra Bland (a $500 bond) and Erick Tavira ($20,000 bail) have died by suicide in the face of awful conditions. The system disproportionately affects low-income and Black Americans and those with mental illnesses. Unfortunately, recent modest attempts at bail reform have stalled due to fears of rising crime, even though there is no correlation between crime rates and decreased pretrial detention.

There are plenty of excuses to explain away Trump’s more comfortable situation. His fraud case is a civil matter, not criminal. Much of his claimed wealth is tied up in real estate — and therefore difficult to post as collateral for a bond. The appellate court had absolute discretion to adjust the bond amount to reflect that fact. And bond reductions of this size are not unheard of: In 2003, for example, when the Philip Morris tobacco company faced a $12 billion bond in Illinois over a class-action lawsuit, the Illinois Supreme Court cut the bond in half. (The New York Times editorial board called the original bond “the kind of ruling that erodes the credibility of our legal system.”)

But debating whether Trump’s situation reflects the current law misses the point. The fact is that the law throws the Larry Prices of the world in jail, while Trump gets chance after chance after chance to meet his bond. Can’t afford it? Don’t worry — here’s 10 more days to find a reduced amount. Submitted the wrong paperwork? Don’t worry — just resubmit. May have improperly collateralized the bond? Don’t worry — here’s another 10 days to get the spreadsheets in order. All the while, Trump and his wealthy friends have extra time to find the funds needed to stave off his self-made crisis.

That Trump’s bond reduction and postponement has legal precedent is precisely the problem. And it’s a problem far bigger than Trump. After the 2008 financial crisis, the federal government bailed out Wall Street, but left homeowners to twist in the winds of foreclosure, because that’s what the law allowed. In the early months of the pandemic, when the government rushed out $800 billion in Paycheck Protection Program loans, nearly two-thirds went to company owners and shareholders, not the workers whose paychecks the loans were supposed to protect. Because that’s what the law allowed.

Ever since Trump descended an escalator like the world’s most pompous mall cop, it has often seemed like there’s no crisis he can’t escape. But the truth is that the American legal and economic system, with its biases toward the wealthy, lets him escape. When he is less able to flex his financial muscle, whether in an election or an actual courtroom, his record is mixed if not downright poor. But in many cases, he simply buys his way out of accountability (or leverages conservative media outlets’ fear of losing viewers against them).And when those bills leave him facing financial disaster, wealthy friends swoop in with reality-TV dealsmedia mergers and even bail bonds.

Nearly 20 years ago, Princeton University’s Martin Gilens compared the results of almost 2,000 survey questions asked between 1981 and 2002 and found “actual policy outcomes strongly reflect the preferences of the most affluent but bear virtually no relationship to the preferences of poor or middle-income Americans.” The law written by the few protects the few at the expense of the many. It should be no surprise that Trump has not only survived, but often thrived under this system. And unless we remake our laws and economy in a dramatically more democratic and egalitarian manner, there will be more Trumps — and more Prices — to come.

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