Opinion: The damage done by Trump’s fraud

File photo/Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times / Former President Donald Trump appears in State Supreme court in Manhattan for closing arguments in his civil fraud trial on Jan. 11, 2024.
File photo/Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times / Former President Donald Trump appears in State Supreme court in Manhattan for closing arguments in his civil fraud trial on Jan. 11, 2024.

One would expect the 2024 GOP front-runner, former President Donald Trump, to be rallying voters. Instead, he's railing against a ruling in his civil fraud trial that resulted in a $355 million fine, a three-year ban from running companies in New York (including his own), as well as $4 million fines and similar two-year bans against his sons Donald Jr. and Eric.

Trump reacted by attacking Judge Arthur Engoron and New York Attorney General Letitia James, calling both "corrupt." Supporters, including Trump's attorneys, have suggested that there were no true victims of the corrupt business practices. For her part, James, in a news conference after the ruling, said that "This long-running fraud was intentional, egregious, illegal; there cannot be different rules for different people in this country, and former presidents are no exception."

At least three potential victims come to mind, said Christopher Michaelson, the Opus distinguished professor of principled leadership at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business.

"One would be the banks who are lending at lower rates as a result of these [financial] misstatements," Michaelson told an editorial writer. "Another victim would be society at large, insofar as when we have an inequitable system that can be sort of gamed by the powerful or the knowledgeable, then the rest of us are likelier to get less favorable terms for submitting accurate information when others are getting favorable terms by submitting unfair information." The third, added Michaelson: "Competitors who are doing business honestly.

"The idea that it's a victimless crime," Michaelson said, "is maybe founded on the idea that these are big, abstract, ambiguous entities — big banks, big society, big competitors — but they're victims nonetheless."

Michaelson, an expert on ethics and business law, added that "the institution of business depends on trust" and that the institution takes a reputational hit from big stories like Trump's trial. The "behaviors that don't make the headlines enable business to function smoothly," he said.

Perhaps those committing or considering fraud might pack up their offices and leave New York. Conversely, the high-profile case study in enforcing the rule of law may steel some New York businesses into staying.

"New York is going to do just fine," said Michaelson, who's also an adjunct professor at New York University. "There's a counterargument to be made that free and fair markets function more efficiently for all who participate in them. And markets in which regulation is lax and rules go unenforced tend to devolve into kind of survival-of-the-fittest behavior and ultimately function very inefficiently and inequitably."

More broadly, international investors ought to be reassured that this country's justice system does not automatically defer to the powerful — even a former president.

"The strong rule of law and commitment to trustworthy business practices in the United States has done more for it being an attractive place to do business," Michaelson said. "Just as New York is going to do just fine, the United States is doing just fine in the global economy, and those who don't do business in the United States do so at their own peril."

In his ruling, Judge Engoron wrote that "The frauds found here leap off the page and shock the conscience."

Although, perhaps not the consciences of Trump or his adult sons. "Their complete lack of contrition and remorse borders on the pathological," Engoron wrote.

That phrase, along with Trump's attempts to delegitimize the justice system, should guide voters in November who will determine the leader of the country for the next four years.

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