Trump could be more than $1 billion in debt — that's a national security risk, experts say

President's personal debt could be "one of the greatest individual security risks in the history of this country"

Published September 29, 2020 5:00AM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump announces his list of potential Supreme Court nominees in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on September 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump announces his list of potential Supreme Court nominees in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on September 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

A New York Times reckoning of President Trump's finances suggests that he could be hard-pressed to cover hundreds of millions in debt coming due over the next few years, a prospect that national security experts say raises serious alarms about Trump's motives and vulnerabilities to foreign influence.

"Someone with a mountain of debt like President Trump is a national security risk and would be unable to get a security clearance if he were any other government employee," former U.S. attorney and national security law expert Barb McQuade told Salon. "When someone is desperate for cash, they are susceptible to blackmail or bribery. For that reason, people with massive debt or in bankruptcy are not permitted access to our nation's secrets."

Indeed, national security authorities tell Salon that debt is one of the most common reasons that the government rejects security clearances. Creditors can exert undue influence over borrowers with large debts, as can someone with knowledge that an individual is strapped for cash. A prominent leader positioned as Trump is — he is deeply in debt, and has refused to detach himself from his businesses, which rely heavily on overseas income — makes a perfect mark for foreign intelligence agencies and corporate entities.

To be considered compromising, experts say, the amount doesn't have to come anywhere near the estimated $1.1 billion that Trump owes.

"I served with people who lost security clearances because, when they deployed, they had cell phones that weren't turned off and the account went to collection," Naveed Jamali, national security expert and author of the book "How to Catch a Russian Spy," told Salon. "These were 20-year-old kids who did nothing wrong, yet a routine background check showed this and they lost their clearance.

"Trump owes hundreds of millions of dollars, he's currently under audit and he's declared bankruptcy multiple times — and to see that he still gets a pass is not only insulting, it's dangerous," Jamali said. "How can we expect he isn't a desperate man, deeply in debt to God knows who?

"It's probably one of the greatest individual security risks in the history of this country," he added.

Some critics say part of the problem is that it's difficult to say exactly who might have Trump in their pocket. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised the concern Monday to NBC News' Andrea Mitchell.

"This president appears to have over $400 million in debt. To whom? Different countries? What is the leverage they have? So for me, this is a national security question," Pelosi said.

"We take an oath to protect and defend. This president is commander in chief. He has exposure to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars — to whom? The public has a right to know," she continued.

Trump's tax returns show that while he he only paid $750 to the U.S. government in 2016 and 2017, he paid thousands of dollars in income taxes to foreign governments where his companies do business, such as Panama, India and the Philippines. He has extensive business ties to Turkey and the Middle East, and actively pursued a Trump Tower Moscow project during the 2016 campaign while publicly saying he had "no deals" with Russia.

But while some might raise the specter of unknown foreign entities holding sway over the president, Trump's financial disclosures reveal who most of his creditors are — though not entirely. Neither the disclosures nor the tax returns reveal any possible underwriters or silent partners that a bank might have required in order to lend millions of dollars to someone with Trump's financial record.

Veteran national security attorney Bradley Moss pointed out that the Times report not only shows Trump's debts, it also throws into serious doubt his capacity to amortize them — a role that foreign interests might be willing to take on in exchange for information or favors.

"Trump's extensive financial debts, and the serious lack of detail surrounding his ability, if any, to pay those debts, is the very kind of thing that ordinarily would pose a major obstacle to someone serving in a national security position," Moss told Salon.

Trump's businesses, many of which are in the hospitality, travel and tourism sectors, have also been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. On top of that, the Times revealed for the first time that a decades-long IRS audit over a $72.9 million tax refund that Trump received could end up costing him more than $100 million, should it be decided unfavorably.

Forbes estimates that Trump, while a billionaire in terms of the net value of assets and debts, only has about $160 million in cash on hand. A $100 million hit on that, the magazine noted, would be "absolutely devastating."

"If you add those together, I mean, he's very realistically facing a potential bankruptcy where people are concerned — in terms of your previous guest [i.e., Pelosi] — about foreign influence," former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen told NBC News. "I mean, the more likely scenario that I see is that he'll find some corrupt foreign entity to help him out of the situation."

That scenario, however, could play out regardless of whether Trump remains in office or not.

"The out-of-office scenario is fascinating," McQuade said. "After President Trump leaves office, he will still know many of the secrets he learned as president. While he will no longer have the power to act on them, he will still have the power to disclose them. The Espionage Act makes it a crime to willfully reveal national defense information."

While the Constitution might provide remedy, Moss pointed to the unique design flaw that failed to prevent this scenario: A 20-something military intelligence analyst might lose his clearance for letting a cell phone bill lapse, but no such rules apply to the president. This, Moss says, is a familiar theme.

"One of the key lessons that has emerged from the Trump presidency is that we may need to consider future constitutional measures to impose disclosure obligations on constitutional officers, such as the president, who are otherwise exempt from national security vetting," he said.

Another familiar theme might make it difficult for Trump to sell what he knows, even if he wanted to. As Jamali observed, anyone who pays Trump for information is rolling the dice on the reliability of that information.

"I can't imagine trying to debrief him," he said.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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