Politics / March 26, 2024

Trump Is Up to His Old Tricks to Pay His Bills

To make the bond to appeal his civil fraud cause, the former president orchestrated a merger for his social media platform, Truth Social.

Chris Lehmann
(Scott Olson / Getty Images)

So much for the idea of a civil fine as a fraud deterrent. As Donald Trump frantically sought to scare up cash to make the bond in his recent New York trial on charges of rampant financial fraud, he did just what he always does in a cash crunch: He leveraged his brand into a massive payday founded on profoundly dubious paper valuations. This time around, Trump and his financial allies pressed fast-forward on a pending shell-company merger for Digital World Acquisition Corp., the corporate parent of the former president’s flailing social media venture, Truth Social.

As things turned out, Trump got a reprieve for his bond posting as he appeals the court’s fraud verdict; he only has to throw together $175 million over the course of his appeal, instead of the $454 million originally assessed. That should prove to be a manageable lift—especially given that Trump is slated to realize a timely windfall that will catapult his net worth to $6.5 billion, according to Bloomberg estimates, in the Digital World deal. The former president cum tantrum-throwing coup-plotter holds a whopping 79 million shares in Truth Social’s original parent company, Trump Media—already a giant de facto helping of backsheesh for lending his name to the platform, and more or less exclusively posting on it. Since Truth Social clocked around $3 million in revenue last year, it’s hard to see this jury-rigged rescue plan as anything other than the same house-of-cards strategy of brazenly and systematically inflating the value of underlying assets that formed the basis of the original adverse judgment against Trump in the New York trial.

But that just scratches the surface of things, corruption-wise, in this case. Trump’s financial angel in the Digital World merger is Jeffrey Yass, the head of the Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna Fund. Yass is so far the biggest donor to Republican campaigns in the 2024 cycle, to the tune of around $46 million, and holds a 7 percent stake in Byte Dance, the Chinese company that runs TikTok—a holding valued at around $28 billion. That combination of credentials sparked Trump to abruptly reverse his earlier support for a US ban on TikTok after a meeting with Yass. The Susquehanna chief, who had previously discouraged Trump from mounting a third presidential run, was also now firmly in the MAGA fold; after the Trump-Yass confab, Bloomberg Business Week reported that Yass was on the short list of potential nominees to run the Treasury Department in a second Trump administration. In The Nation, Jacob Silverman summed up the political logic behind the new Trump-Yass bromance:

Trump is likely sidling up to him as a potential Zuckerberg-scale force in social media who closely aligns with the MAGA movement’s policy preferences. Yass ticks many of the boxes expected of the post–Citizens United billionaire class. He’s passionate about “school choice” and less passionate about paying taxes. He’s heavily invested in the charter school movement, denouncing teachers as corrupt, overpaid layabouts. He’s called the Democratic Party an “evil political actor.” He’s on the board of the libertarian Cato Institute and idolizes Milton Friedman, whose 1962 laissez-faire tract Capitalism and Freedom was a core text in Yass’s conversion to conservative economics.

With Yass now positioned as Trump’s financial savior of first resort, the 2024 Trump campaign is on a glide path toward full oligarchic backing. Several key billionaires who had lined up behind the doomed presidential run of Florida governor Ron DeSantis are now back in the Trump camp. Early next month, hedge fund billionaire John Paulson—another rumored Treasury candidate for Team MAGA—is hosting a Palm Beach fundraiser for fellow oligarchs. A seat at Trump’s table there will fetch a cool $814,600 outlay; a generic “committee member” attendee will have to fork over a modest $250,000. Meanwhile, significant tranches of Trump’s PAC dosh are already getting diverted to help cover his monumental legal fees—a state of affairs that does nothing to help alleviate the considerable money gap that’s opened up between the Biden and Trump campaigns. Silicon Valley moguls are likewise lining up behind Trump, making the ever-fatuous media designation of the 2024 GOP nominee as a “populist” an occasion for outright horse laughs. Bloomberg writer Brad Stone captures the absurdity of the moment, archly noting that “some of the people who’ve seen their wealth grow propitiously in the last few years and benefited from the stability of the status quo are now among the loudest voices trying to upend it.”

Of course, the status quo in question here is the one that always musters billionaires to the barricades: the prospect of increased marginal tax rates for the nation’s owning caste. In this backward-spooling uprising of the takers, a figure such as Yass is a bridge between the finance and tech wings of the oligarchy, propping up a sick-sister property like Digital World as a de facto campaign contribution as he seeks to expand the value of his stake in an actual global tech giant. For all the sound and fury that the MAGA right expends on the phantom menace of a shady set of financial deals involving Ukraine oligarchs and presidential failson Hunter Biden, the Digital World deal is the genuine article when it comes to mobbed-up financial legerdemain. It’s true that the proposed merger may not be in technical violation of the law, but that’s much more an indictment of securities enforcement than a vindication of Trump-branded self-dealing.

For any remotely sentient observer, the underlying corruption here could not be more blatant if Lev Parnas were narrating it for the House Oversight Committee. With Jeff Yass running the money stand, the Trump shakedown operation can navigate its way through the court dates ahead, and continue play-acting in the preposterous investor-sanctioned fable that Truth Social is a revolutionary and agenda-setting media property—all while presenting itself as the agent of justice and revenge for the country’s forgotten working masses. In Trump world, after all, financial fraud is just the overture to the main event.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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