Donald J. Ponzi

It sounds like a board game (The Predator’s Ball ?), in which each player’s token commits a variety of sexual, electoral, and financial crimes and then uses money from their political action committees to pay lawyers, hush money, or court-imposed fines. Now, thanks to political virtual reality, the Trump campaign has brought all that video-parlor fun to an election coming soon to your neighborhood.

In 2016, when Trump first stood for office, he was running from various creditors, hoping—like some scofflaw standing for president in Africa or Asia—that he would be immune from bankruptcy or criminal proceedings if occupying high office.

That dodge turned out better than even Trump had hoped, in that he was elected to the presidency, although the cost of operating the White House as a confidence game turned out to be more expensive than even the new president could have imagined.

Since leaving office—when the meter started running again on various criminal and civil charges—Trump has gone into the hole for more than half a billion dollars in civil fraud judgements ($454 million to the state of New York), lawsuit damages ($83.3 million to E. Jean Carroll), and legal bills (in the last two years now approaching $80 million even if personal attorney and Borat Subsequent Movie extra Rudolph Giuliani remains unpaid).

Trump has no intention of actually paying off these obligations in full; that’s not his style. When it comes to owed money, he’s a pennies-on-the-dollar guy.

All he really wants to do is slow-walk the payments until he is back in office, when it would be his hope to invoke some kind of executive privilege that exempts a president from paying off one of his rape victims.


In the meantime what’s also clear is that the financial condition of the Trump Organization isn’t sufficient to keep various judicial wolves from the door.

Recently, Trump’s lawyers told the court in New York state that he was not in a position to post a bond for $454 million required so that the Trump Organization can appeal the civil-fraud judgment of Justice Arthur F. Engoron.

Apparently, no bank, surety company, insurance corporation or bail bondsman (“You can’t put a price on freedom…”) wanted to underwrite Trump’s $454 million appeal.

So much for the statement his campaign released in 2015 saying that he was worth in excess of “ten billion,” which never did match those $750 tax payments.

The public cover story is that none of the bail whales wants to take real estate as collateral for a surety bond, but I think the reason is more subtle: the Trump Organization really doesn’t own all that much unencumbered property.

It’s a branding, protection racket that keeps 30% of the action while laying off actual asset ownership to Jared’s Saudi sugar daddies or Putin’s oligarchs. I suspect there’s not much demand to lend against future commissions, now that the brand itself has been convicted of Madoff-like schemes. Plus many financial companies have internal policies that prevent them from lending to sexual predators.


To keep his wheel of imagined fortune spinning, Trump has now turned to looting the Republican Party, from which millions in small campaign donations can be siphoned off and used to pay his lawyers and civil fines.

Even though Trump and a few of his indicted and un-indicted co-conspirators are the only ones still believing that the 2020 election was stolen, in the made-over Republican Party (daughter-in-law Lara Trump presiding as a co-chair), it’s an article of party faith that Donald Trump was robbed and that he can only be made whole if the party steps up to cover what otherwise would be personal expenses.

In just the last six months of 2023, various campaign entities and PACs (they all have names such as Save America, Patriot Legal Defense Fund, or Bail to the Chief….) paid $27 million in legal expenses on behalf the world’s dumbest defendant (who by running his mouth turned a $5 million judgment in the E. Jean Carroll case into another $83 million in damages). And the big legal bills will only come in 2024, when the many trials begin.


For a while, Trump had the hair-brained (it must come in jars of glow-in-the-dark orange goo?) idea that he could run for the presidency by grandstanding in various criminal and civil courtrooms that would allow him to campaign as the Designated Victim of the Great Democratic Witch Hunt.

To that end, he refused to settle or plead out some of the lesser cases, and in the major cases (Jack Smith’s insurrection charges) his only strategy is to appeal until the case winds up in front of the Supreme Court, which doubles as Trump’s in-house and personal injury law-firm (“Well Get Your Tail Outta Jail…”), at the ready to keep him on the ballot in Colorado and to decide whether presidents have the sovereign immunity of Medici popes and princes.

Meanwhile, any law firm that is still representing Trump knows that it can mail in any invoice, no matter how padded or preposterous, and Lara Trump at the RNC or the Save America PAC will pay out on behalf of legal aid defendant Trump.

Here are just a few of the invoices for Trumps legal expenses that have been paid from PACs and other slush funds between March and December, 2023: Continental LLC was paid $3.6 million; Blanche Law drew $2.3 million; John Lauro took in $2.6 million; and Super Lawyer Alina Habba stuck Trump’s paymasters for $3.2 million—this while she cost him $83 million in damages at the second E. Jean Carroll trial. (I’m guessing that Stormy now regrets only getting $130,00 to keep quiet in 2016.)


To transform the Republican Party into a personal money spigot, Trump didn’t just change the party chair but gutted the national organization by firing 60 staffers at all levels. This means that in the tight races to retain control of the House of Representatives in November, the GOP will have neither money nor experience to take on the Democratic machine.

At year-end the Republican National Committee only had $8 million in cash on hand, while the Democratic National Committee had $21 million (presumably money not needed to pay Hunter’s lawyers).

More alarming to the Republicans should be the fact that the Democrats are out-raising them by an almost 2:1 margin, and it’s hard for me to imagine that firing 60 staffers at the RNC will boost the Republican haul.

In all party accounts, at year-end 2023 the Democrats had $96 million while Republicans had $64 million, and in the fourth quarter of 2023, Biden raised $32 million versus Trump’s $19 million. (Trump also spent $5 million more than he took in.)

Compared to 2019, when Trump had raised $248 million at this point in the campaign, at the end of 2023 he had only pulled in $129 million, which seems hardly enough to scrape together a surety bond and keep Alina Habba in the style to which she has become accustomed.

I am thinking Trump’s monthly legal bills will soon approach $10 million. All those criminal trials and Supreme Court appeals don’t come cheap. Then he owes E. Jean Carroll $83 million, and the state of New York $454 million, with interest on that judgment compounding at $112,000 a day. If the Republicans lose control of the House, this may be the reason.

Sure, Trump could sell off Mar-a-Lago or some property management gigs in Manhattan, but in 2021 he lost the franchise to operate the Wollman Skating Rink in New York’s Central Park, so he can hardly say, in the guise of Caddyshack’s Carl Spackler: “So I got that goin for me, which is nice.”


More imaginable than a domestic surety company coming up with Trump’s needed scratch is the likelihood that he will tap into his network of foreign loan sharks—those who have been keeping the Trump Organization afloat since most big American banks walked away from the company in the 1990s when Trump presided over various bankruptcies and liquidations (all to his favor).

The advantage of doing a quiet deal with the Saudis, Chinese, or Russians is that they are comfortable dealing with black marketeers down on their luck. Nor would they quibble—like Chubb or Travelers—about the liquidity of the collateral, as in this case Trump would be pledging the assets of the United States over which his creditors would perfect their lien when and if Trump is re-elected president.

For Trump, the alternative to hocking his future presidency could well be bankruptcy and a stretch in the joint, so doing a bond deal with a loan rat—someone he “met” through Putin or the Saudis—would be a no-brainer.

Already Trump’s had an “I’m-a-little-short-this-month” conversation with Elon Musk, but I sense the electric car titan declined the idea of taking a pledge over the next Trump presidency, although I am sure he found the offer tempting. Not often do you find sovereign assets backing up junk bonds. But Musk may have his monopolistic eyes on things larger than the United States.


The problem for the country at large—if Trump becomes president and if he’s a wholly-owned subsidiary of some sheikdom or Putin oligarch—is this: for the first time in its history, a foreign entity would control the White House.

The Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution makes it clear how much the Founding Fathers dreaded foreign influence in the American government. It reads in full:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

As a private citizen, Trump could do any deal with anyone he chooses, but now that he’s the favorite for the Republican nomination and a declared candidate for president, he’s limited in what he can accept from foreign sources (nothing, in fact), although I doubt it would stop him. In office, Trump made millions leasing suites, which largely sat empty, at his Washington hotel to foreign governments currying favor in his ketchup empire.

If Trump is using his lawsuits and criminal cases as campaign stage props (which he is), how can any entity funding such legal positions not be construed as making an in-kind campaign contribution?

Fixer Michael Cohen went up the river for giving Stormy $130,000 from his boss and pretending it was all his idea, while all those PAC and RNC donors are giving $80 million if not lots more, to Trump lawyers and claiming it’s a legitimate campaign expense.


I am not sure what’s worse: bilking Republican campaign donors of their $50 donations to pay off Trump’s civil-fraud judgments, or auctioning off a future presidency to foreign bagmen.

Neither strikes me as being in the spirit of the Constitution—more in the tradition of the smooth-talking financier and fraudster Charles Ponzi (1882–1949), who said of his collapsed pyramid schemes (very much sounding like Trump):

Even if they never got anything for it, it was cheap at that price. Without malice aforethought I had given them the best show that was ever staged in their territory since the landing of the Pilgrims! It was easily worth fifteen million bucks to watch me put the thing over.

In exchange, for a while anyway, Ponzi had the use of millions of other people’s money (much like Trump and the take of the Republican Party), although in the end he served ten years in jail and was deported to Brazil. But all that the amiable huckster Ponzi ever faced was 85 indictments. Trump, who loves to brag about his achievements, can top that; he has 91.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.