A fraud ruling threatens not just Donald Trump's business empire, but also the story the former president sells about his success

New York (AFP) - A key selling point of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential run was that he was a businessman, not a politician.

But his corporate empire – which served as proof to many voters of his economic bonafides – is now in jeopardy after a judge ruled Tuesday that the former president, his sons and the Trump Organization had engaged in “persistent and repeated fraud.”

The ruling stemmed from a fraud case brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, which still must go to trial Monday.

In a partial victory for James, Judge Arthur Engoron found there had been a systemic overvaluation of assets, such as Trump Tower and other properties, to better negotiate with banks.

In addition to finding that Trump and his sons committed fraud, the judge also revoked their state business licenses and asked the parties to propose receivers to manage the dissolution of the companies in question.

James is seeking $250 million in penalties and the removal of Trump and his sons from management of the family empire, the Trump Organization.

Engoron’s initial decision puts in jeopardy Trump’s control over not just the iconic Trump Tower, but other restaurants and boutiques, as well as high-end commercial property.

- ‘Nationalization’ -

While it wasn’t immediately clear whether Trump would have to sell his assets affected by the ruling, or they could be overseen by the yet-to-be-named receiver, the ruling was a serious blow for the Republican billionaire.

“Trump’s ability to do business in New York State has pretty much ended by this ruling,” Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman told AFP.

“The overseer can now manage the properties, basically Trump and his organization will not be allowed to manage these properties anymore,” he said.

The ex-president’s lawyers immediately announced their appeal, with Trump’s camp accusing Engoron of trying to “nationalize one of the most successful corporate empires in the United States and seize control of private property.”

For Trump, who is seeking the White House again in 2024, the stakes are high: according to Forbes magazine, the 77-year-old’s New York real estate represented $720 million of his $2.5 billion fortune.

Outside of New York, the Trump Organization runs luxury hotels and clubs, including Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach, Florida.

- Symbolic blow -

While the details of how the ruling will be carried out remain unknown, and though James must still go to trial for the $250 million, the ruling is a symbolic blow to “the story that Donald Trump tells about himself as a businessman,” says Will Thomas, a University of Michigan assistant professor of business law.

“We’ve seen even before he was president, Donald Trump really cares about his net worth as a reflection of his talent,” Thomas told AFP.

“And what we saw yesterday is a court saying, ‘There’s no dispute about the fact that Donald Trump has systematically lied about his wealth,’ in really dramatic ways, up to hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars.”

But if Trump’s business dealings were key to helping him win the White House once before, it’s unclear if the potential dissolution of his empire will hurt him this time around.

The fraud case isn’t even among his four most serious court cases right now – where he’s accused, among other charges, of hoarding secret documents and trying to overturn the 2020 election.

And despite the fact that he might be spending so much time in court when he could be campaigning, he remains the Republican favorite in the race to challenge Biden in 2024.