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Here's what happens if Trump can't pay his $454 million bond

Forty Wall Street, a Trump-owned building, stands in downtown Manhattan. Former President Trump says he can't secure a bond to appeal the $454 million penalty in his civil fraud case. But New York Attorney General Letitia James stating that she is prepared to seize the former president's assets, including the building at 40 Wall Street, if he is unable to pay.
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Forty Wall Street, a Trump-owned building, stands in downtown Manhattan. Former President Trump says he can't secure a bond to appeal the $454 million penalty in his civil fraud case. But New York Attorney General Letitia James stating that she is prepared to seize the former president's assets, including the building at 40 Wall Street, if he is unable to pay.

Updated March 20, 2024 at 10:24 AM ET

Former President Donald Trump needs to arrange a $454 million bond to comply with a New York court ruling in less than a week, but the presumptive Republican presidential nominee says he can't find a company to put up the bond.

Trump's lawyers are asking an appeals court to stay the judgment, but the clock is ticking.

How did Trump come to owe the state of New York some $454 million?

This is the ruling that Judge Arthur Engoron issued last month, after finding that Donald, Eric and Donald Trump Jr., along with Trump Organization employees, engaged in a decade-long conspiracy to lie about the value of their assets.

In New York, if you make money by persistently committing fraud, you owe the ill-gotten portion back to the state. In this case, Judge Engoron determined that Donald Trump made over $350 million more than he should have if he'd been honest and when you add in interest, you get to $454 million.

Why does Trump have to come up with the money now?

Trump doesn't have to actually pay that money now, but he has to get a company to make a guarantee to the court that they will pay the money if he loses his appeal. That's the bond part.

But to get a bond, you have to put up assets, and in a court filing MondayTrump lawyers said they'd approached 30 companies but that getting a bond was a "practical impossibility," because they'd need a billion dollars in cash, which they don't have.

They submitted an affidavit from an insurance executive who had testified at trial, and whom the trial judge had already discredited.

Trump says he's a billionaire. Why can't he just come up with the money himself?

Trump said during a deposition for this case, taken about a year ago, that he had plenty of cash. He said, "I believe we have substantially in excess of $400 million in cash." And, he added, it's "going up very substantially every month."

News organizations have estimated that Trump actually has about $300 million in liquid assets — but he already had to set aside $100 million or so to put up a bond to pay the verdict in the E. Jean Carroll civil case. The rest of his money is largely tied up in buildings and golf courses, and while he could sell a property, that can't happen right away. Trump said Tuesday that would be a "fire sale," though he said many times during the trial he could always find a buyer to pay top dollar.

While Trump's political action committees have spent millions of dollars on his legal fees, they're unlikely to be of help to him in this case because of campaign finance laws.

Trump has accused the judge in the case of trying to take away his rights, posting on social media that any assets he may be forced to sell would be gone even if he ultimately wins his appeal.

That's a concern that any defendant could raise, whether they're liable for $450 or $450 million, says Adam Pollock, a former assistant attorney general in New York.

"But if you want to bond the appeal — stop enforcement of the judgment — you have to put up the full amount," he told Morning Edition. "That's what the law says. And that's a policy decision that Albany has made."

The deadline is Monday. What does Trump do if the appeals court doesn't rule his way?

He can appeal to New York's highest court and ask that court to stay the judgment. If they don't, he can ask a benefactor or he could try and stall some more until he comes into money from the upcoming sale of his social media company, or he could — though it has many disadvantages — declare bankruptcy.

But New York Attorney General Letitia James has been clear: If Trump doesn't pay, she will move to seize his assets.

"If he does not have funds to pay off the judgment, then we will seek judgment enforcement mechanisms in court," she said. "And we will ask the judge to seize his assets."

Trump's noncash assets run to $3 billion, Forbes estimates, so there's plenty of value there. The law limits the AG to seizing properties that were a part of the case, but there's about two dozen of those, everything from the Doral Golf Club to 40 Wall Street to Trump Tower. She's not limited to New York properties, though there are extra steps if she chooses to go out of state.

She could, in theory, send a sheriff or a marshal to enforce the judgment, and that brings on another legal process with many more opportunities for delay.

Can Trump be forced to pay up?

James can begin enforcement of the judgment immediately after the 30-day grace period expires next week, says Pollock. And there are several devices she can use to try to get him to pay.

For one, he says, she could serve Trump a restraining notice that would restrict his spending in other areas until he pays his bond.

"The restraining notice would say: 'Don't spend money, don't fill up your jet at the pump, until you pay the state of New York, or you'll be held in contempt of court,' " Pollock says. "And my impression is that ... Engoran, the judge here in New York, would be quick to hold him in contempt of court."

He says it's theoretically possible that James' could consider settling, especially if Trump were to write a check for something like $250 million. But short of that, he doesn't see any reason for her to proactively lower his bond, especially since she has the tools to go into banks and drain his accounts.

"The entire trial was effectively a roadmap to his financial assets," Pollock adds. "She can now send out a sheriff or a marshal of the city of New York to go walk into a financial institution holding what's known as an execution and empty his bank account short of $3,000, which is the statutory floor."

Pollock acknowledges that Trump has said he doesn't have $450 million in cash. But if he wants to stave off enforcement, "he needs to find a way to raise it."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Andrea Bernstein
Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.