Sep 30, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The national security risks hiding in Trump's debts

an illustration of sharks swimming around a pile of cash

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The blockbuster New York Times report on President Trump’s taxes reveals that the president is $421 million in debt, with more than $300 million coming due during Trump’s potential second term — and the identities of the president’s creditors remain unknown.

Why it matters: If some, or all, of this debt is held by foreign actors, it raises serious national security implications.

  • "As an intelligence professional, the most important thing is the unknown source of significant loans," says Douglas Wise, a former senior CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency official, because they hold "the potential for blackmail, manipulation and extortion."

The big picture: Standard counterintelligence practices counsel against granting access to sensitive information to individuals with a history of financial instability, because these can provide acute leverage to predatory foreign governments. Senior intelligence officials are even required to disclose all stock transactions in a monthly report.

Between the lines: An average American with Trump's financial profile — massive debts and a history of bankruptcies — would likely not get a security clearance, say former intelligence officials.

  • Large debts are a "glaring signal for any hostile intelligence service," says Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA official who retired in 2019. "Financial vulnerabilities are at the top of their list when pursuing targets for recruitment. ... That the president has such glaring vulnerabilities is jarring to see."

One key risk in President Trump's case is that "hostile intelligence services can quite easily penetrate foreign banks," says Polymeropoulos.

  • That means foreign intelligence agencies may already know a great deal more than the American public about Trump's finances, offering the governments they serve another potential point of leverage over the president.

Some former U.S. intelligence officials worry about these vulnerabilities even after Trump leaves office. Ex-presidents can traditionally continue to receive intelligence briefings, including bespoke classified briefings before traveling to specific countries.

  • "No one has ever questioned whether these individuals are vulnerable," says Larry Pfeiffer, who served as chief of staff to CIA director Michael Hayden. But, he notes, there is also no precedent for the "massive debt load that this president is holding."
  • "All of a sudden you have a leveraged private citizen Trump who still has access to existentially valuable secrets," worries Wise.

Flashback: The question of whether Trump's businesses have relied on foreign financing — and particularly Russian money — has simmered for years.

  • It’s been widely reported that after filing for business bankruptcy at least four times, Trump could no longer find U.S. banks to lend him money, so he went searching abroad for financing, including to Germany’s Deutsche Bank, which has lent the president hundreds of millions of dollars.
  • Deutsche Bank has been embroiled in controversy involving Russian money laundering, but the Trump Organization has also been linked directly to Russian capital.
  • At a 2008 realtor’s conference, Donald Trump Jr. said, "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. ... We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." Eric Trump reportedly said in 2013, "We don't rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia" to finance the purchase of golf courses. (He subsequently denied making this statement.)

The Mueller probe declined to look deeply into the international money trail, according to senior investigator Andrew Weissmann — a key oversight, he believes.

Be smart: For Christopher Burgess, a 30-year CIA veteran who writes often on counterintelligence issues, the revelations about Trump’s indebtedness raise more questions than they answer.

  • "Is there a side agreement? What caused the bank [that lent him money] to take this risk? What’s his credit score?" asks Burgess. "The risk of them signing the money away was very high. The track record is that he screws everybody he does business with."

The bottom line: If any portion of the vast sum Trump reportedly owes is derived from overseas financing, the issue of his debt becomes a matter of national security — and unprecedented in the history of the presidency.

Go deeper: Trump's business dealings raise security concerns, too

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