One of the fastest ways to be denied a security clearance, current and former intelligence officials will tell you, is to carry a load of debt. And then there’s President Donald Trump.
New revelations in a New York Times report show Trump allegedly has $421 million of debt coming due over the next four years. An audit fight with the IRS could cost him another $100 million. At the same time, he reportedly paid taxes to foreign nations far larger than the $750 he paid in the United States the year he won the presidency and his first year in office.
For a sitting president, with the power to impose fear or favor across the country and around the world, not to mention access to the nation’s most closely held secrets, such financial exposure is more than embarrassing, former intelligence officials and ethics lawyers say: it makes Trump a national security threat.
“For a person with access to U.S. classified information to be in massive financial debt is a counterintelligence risk because the debt-holder tends to have leverage over the person, and the leverage may be used to encourage actions, such as disclosure of information or influencing policy, that compromise U.S. national security,” says David Kris, former head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division and founder of Culper Partners consulting firm.
If the due dates reported by the Times are accurate, “a second term for President Trump would result in increased vulnerability—and thus, potentially, risk,” says Robert Cardillo, former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and ex-director of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. This would look less like traditional foreign influence, and more like “personal financial pressure [that] could adversely affect U.S. national security decisions,” he says.
Adds former Director of Intelligence James Clapper, “That has always been the suspicion about Trump—that the Russians were bankrolling him. If he were a ‘normal’ employee, that would certainly be a counter-intelligence vulnerability. It’s frightening all around.”
Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the daily D.C. Brief newsletter.
Trump, who broke a 40-year tradition among presidential candidates by refusing to release his tax returns in the 2016 election and has for years tried to block legal efforts to obtain them, on Sunday called the Times report “totally fake news.” Trump has long argued that the only people that care about his tax returns are “reporters” and claimed that he can’t release his tax information because it’s under audit. The IRS has repeatedly said nothing is preventing him from doing so.
It is not clear where Trump will turn when the loans come due during his second term; American banks reportedly have been unwilling to loan Trump money for a long time. It could make Trump an even more attractive target for foreign actors with deep pockets and their own U.S. policy interests, and add a new dimension to his interactions with countries where he has previously pitched business ventures.
It is for that reason, among others, that a person with large unresolved debts might be disqualified from earning a security clearance, according to the U.S. government’s National Security Adjudicative Guidelines, which lays out the personal background considerations when determining whether a person is eligible. “An individual who is financially overextended is at greater risk of having to engage in illegal or otherwise questionable acts to generate funds,” the 27-page document says.
Mark Zaid, a Washington attorney specializing in national security, says he once had a client get denied a security clearance because the individual had too much student loan debt. The fear goes beyond coercion or blackmail, especially for a sitting U.S. president. It could be that the president is susceptible to legal debt actions, which would compel somebody to perform actions favorable to the debt-holding nations in order to avoid personal ruin, Zaid says. “These are legitimate counterintelligence security concerns, and I would be shocked if agencies of the United States government were not doing what they could to monitor the president’s connection to foreign governments,” he says. “Any national security professional would be incredibly concerned.”
Zaid made clear that he’s not talking about an active criminal or counterintelligence investigation, but rather monitoring to ensure U.S. interests aren’t compromised.
The Times story also reveals some new details about Trump’s business overseas, stating he and his companies paid out $15,598 in taxes in Panama, $145,400 in India and $156,824 in the Philippines in 2017. But the report acknowledges the findings are incomplete.
Trump has been so defensive about his net worth that he sued a reporter and publisher in 2005 who claimed he was worth less than he stated, arguing in a court deposition that his net worth was based on everything from the stock market to “my own feelings” each day. That sensitivity has continued into the presidency, with Trump telling the New York Times in 2017 that it would be crossing a “red line” for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to look at his personal finances.
That defensiveness only makes Trump’s vulnerability worse, say some former national security officials and legal experts. “His continued efforts to hide his financial circumstances and lie about it would constitute a potential national security threat,” says John Sipher, a retired 28-year veteran of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service. “The fact that criminal or foreign intelligence groups might become aware of Trump’s lies would provide them unacceptable leverage and constitute a counterintelligence threat.”
Moreover, Sipher says, the deadline to repay such significant debts would also allow bad actors an opportunity to create a means to approach Trump. “It would be dangerous and unacceptable if the President of the United States was potentially financially beholden to unknown actors,” he says.
“There’s a lot of warning signs all over this massive debt,” says Richard Painter, the former Chief White House Ethics Lawyer under former President George W. Bush. “We don’t know how bad this is.”
—With reporting by John Walcott