It also highlights how if were Trump not the President, a role that grants him access to the country’s most sensitive secrets, he would almost certainly have a difficult time gaining the security clearance that so many of those who work for him are required to have, according to legal experts familiar with the vetting process.
“A vulnerability could be exploited by an adversary,” Robert Cardillo — a former top intelligence official in both the Obama and Trump administrations — told CNN on Monday. “If we as an intelligence community were assessing a foreign leader, and trying to understand his or her stability, and knew of outsized debts to a foreign or even to a national entity, we would see that as a risk,”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told MSNBC she also saw the stunning revelations about Trump’s chaotic finances as a national security problem.
“He has exposure to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. To whom? The public has a right to know,” she said.
“The fact is, over $400 million in leverage that somebody has over the President of the United States,” Pelosi added. “If he were going to be a federal appointee, that would be a major obstacle, because someone has leverage over him.”
Debt is one of the items security officials who are adjudicating clearances look at because of the potential for an adversary to leverage it or, if the person is more desperate, use it as a basis for blackmail, experts say.
The level of Trump’s debt is “beyond comprehension in the national security world,” said Mark Zaid, a lawyer who represents clients in security clearance cases.
“Security clearances are denied every day based on facts that dwarf his circumstances,” Zaid added. “Although a president does not require a security clearance by virtue of the position itself, the circumstances that exist are incredibly troubling. Can we trust Donald Trump to protect our country’s interests or his own personal ones?”
At a White House briefing Sunday, Trump called the New York Times story “fake news” and claimed that he pays “a lot” in federal income taxes.
Trump’s personal debt renews longtime fears
Trump’s reported personal debts underscore a longtime fear about his administration held by critics and Democratic lawmakers — that he is managing US diplomacy in order to prioritize his own personal and financial goals rather than the wider national interests.
Trump, for instance, has derived millions of dollars in income from business ventures in countries like Turkey and the Philippines that are led by autocrats whom he has praised but who infringe on traditional US values like human rights. And while The New York Times reported that he had paid little federal income tax to the Treasury from 2000 to 2017, the President or his companies have paid more in taxes to foreign powers, according to the Times, including $145,400 to India and $156,824 to the Philippines in 2017.
The Times report opens the extraordinary possibility that the lenders could be called upon to decide whether to foreclose on businesses owned by the US President while he is in office if he is unable to pay back the money.
Trump’s closest allies, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have historically dismissed questions about the President’s personal finances and potential conflicts of interest.
“I find that question bizarre,” Pompeo said in 2018 when asked how he can assure the American people that US foreign policy is free of Trump’s personal conflicts of interest given that his tax returns have not been made public. “I have seen literally no evidence of what you are scurrilously suggesting. … It is an outrageous suggestion.”
But now questions about his personal debt raise a “genuine question of foreign leverage and leverage over the President … which means there’s leverage over the United States,” according to John Gans, who was a Pentagon speechwriter for then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
“Where this money is owed and who it’s owed [to], and the way he conducts his foreign policy are an enormous risk to the US national interest,” said Gans, who serves as director of communications and research at the University of Pennsylvania World House Global Policy Center. “We can’t tie down who he owes, and who he might be trying to serve and make happy, and we can’t see what he’s agreeing to do.”
Zaid agreed, telling CNN that “debt is one of the primary security clearance concerns held by the government. Historically, financial problems are among the key factors that lead to committing espionage and betraying our country.”
“While all cases are about demonstrating mitigation … a debt of several hundred million dollars is beyond comprehension in the national security world,” he said.
Trump and members of his family who maintain top jobs at the White House have often circumvented traditional government-vetting processes in pursuit of foreign policy deals touted as key tenets of his reelection campaign.
For example, the Trump administration used a controversial emergency authority to sell weapons to countries like Saudi Arabia without congressional approval and, more recently, the White House brokered an agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates with little input from lawmakers or key agencies typically involved in the process.
“The deal-making is part of his foreign policy record. The problem is we don’t know what’s in the deals. We don’t know what’s being promised,” Gans told CNN.
More questions about Trump’s business dealings in Russia
The Times report emphasized that it did not discover new ties between the President and Russia. But intelligence officials have long questioned what might explain Trump’s leniency when it comes to Moscow and President Vladimir Putin.
The President’s first director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, according to Bob Woodward, “continued to harbor the secret belief, one that had grown rather than lessened, although unsupported by intelligence proof, that Putin had something on Trump.” Coats felt, according to Woodward’s book titled “Rage,” “How else to explain the president’s behavior?”
Trump has repeatedly clashed with the intelligence community, including Coats, over the issue of Russian interference — an unsettling dynamic that has created one of the more unusual spectacles of his presidency and raised questions about his motivations, particularly as they relate to investigations into Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump would often blow up at officials who sought to inform him of such actions, demanding to know why they kept focusing on Russia and often questioning the intelligence itself, multiple former administration officials have said.
When asked about CNN’s reporting that Trump is resistant to intelligence warnings about Russia, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe told CNN in July that “this is totally false” in a statement. Ratcliffe took the job in May.
Trump’s business dealings in Russia, which span roughly 30 years, have come under intense scrutiny in recent years, especially as officials sought to unravel the extent of Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election and contacts with members of the Trump campaign.
Questions to some witnesses during wide-ranging interviews included the timing of Trump’s decision to seek the presidency, potentially compromising information the Russians may have had about him and why efforts to brand a Trump Tower in Moscow fell through, two sources said at the time.
Ultimately, however, Mueller and his chief deputy Aaron Zebley informed the White House that they would not be seeking Trump’s financial information due to concerns that “needlessly rankling the president” might thwart future cooperation and “endanger our ability to fully uncover and chronicle Russia’s interference in the election,” according to a new book by Andrew Weissmann, a top deputy to the special counsel, titled “Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation.”
Weissmann also writes that he saw the possibility of several investigations into Trump and the Trump Organization, which were not pursued because the Mueller team did not follow all financial trails. Those possible investigations included tax fraud, foreign bribery, election fraud and bank fraud, he wrote.
On Monday, Weissman — who formerly headed up the FBI’s criminal fraud division and knows the inner workings of the Trump orbit better than most — spoke to the overall fear about the revelations in the Times story: “Now ask to whom does Trump owe hundreds of millions of dollars coming due soon?” he tweeted.
CNN’s Stephen Collinson and Katelyn Polantz contributed to this report.