The shadow of President Donald Trump falls on a flag Feb. 20, 2020, in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The shadow of President Donald Trump falls on a flag Feb. 20, 2020, in Colorado Springs, Colo. AP / Evan Vucci

Why Donald Trump’s Debt is a National Security Risk

If you owe someone a lot of money, they have leverage over you. To whom, exactly, does the U.S. president owe this money?

Donald Trump’s failure to disclose his foreign debts poses a serious risk to the national security of the United States. It is not just the amount of the debt but his refusal to provide any information about to whom he owes the money and, therefore, who might have influence over him.

Trump denied at the NBC Town Hall October 15 that he owed money to any foreign interests. “Not that I know of,” he told NBC reporter Savannah Guthrie when she asked if he owed money to “any foreign bank, any foreign entity.” 

This is not true, according to multiple sources, including the president’s own financial disclosure forms that list a $300 million debt to the Germany-based Deutsche Bank, and many more debts to others. Trump’s tax returns claim a total of $421 million in debt, while some sources estimate the debt as high as $1 billion.

I held high-level national security clearances for almost two decades in Washington, D.C. If I had debts even a fraction of what President Donald Trump is carrying — and to foreign groups — there is not a chance in hell that I could have gotten them. Here’s why.

Like many readers of Defense One, I answered detailed, intrusive questions to get clearances for my jobs. First as an senior assistant at the U.S. Information Agency in the Reagan Administration, then as a professional staffer on the House Armed Services Committee, again when I investigated major defense programs for the chairman of the House Government Operations Committee and finally as a member of the International Security Advisory Board to Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. 

That last form was 83 pages long, with an entire section devoted to “Foreign Activities.” The very first question was “Have you, your spouse, cohabitant, or dependent children EVER had any foreign financial interests?” (sic). They wanted to know about real estate, companies, payments, advice, support, consultations and more. They asked for the names of every foreign national that I had talked to in the past seven years for any reason at all.

Why? It is all about leverage. Security agencies want to be sure that there is nothing in your past that someone could use to pressure you to betray America.

If you owe someone a lot of money, they have leverage over you. If I owed someone, say, $420,000, it would raise serious questions about whether that person could pressure me into disclosing classified information. If that person lived in a foreign country it would raise more serious concerns. If that person lived in an autocratic foreign country, especially one that had an adversarial relationship to the United States, well, that’s it. I am compromised. Case closed. Security clearance denied.

The risks that we routinely consider for people like me should apply to the president of the United States. But they do not. The president does not have to apply for security clearances. No one investigates his suitability to know the nation’s most sensitive secrets. As president, he is automatically given access. He earned it. The American people gave him access by electing him as president.

As far as we know, no agency has taken a close look at Trump’s finances as a national security risk. But we now know that the president owes at least $420 million. That is a lot of leverage. 

To whom, exactly, does he owe this money? His financial disclosure form is vague, does not provide any support materials and has not been verified. Is it to Saudi oligarchs? Is this why he defended Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after he brutally murdered American journalist Jamal Khashoggi? Is it to Turkish millionaires? Is this why he abruptly withdrew troops from Syria — triggering the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis and allowing the Turkish army to butcher our former allies, the Kurds. Is it to the Russians? Is that why he has never once criticized President Vladimir Putin, even after he put a bounty on the lives of American soldiers?

Maybe there are perfectly innocent explanations to all of this. Which is why Donald Trump should lay it out for the American people. Trust us. Tell us about the $420 million. Tell us to whom you owe it. Tell us a small bit of what you would have to report if you filled out the security forms everyone else in the country with clearances must do. 

But if he doesn’t tell us, this is cause for serious worry.

It worries Dan Coats. The former senator and Trump’s director of national intelligence has “deep suspicions” that Putin “had something” on Trump, he told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. He could see “no other explanation” for the way Trump deferred to Putin at every turn.

It worries Robert Cardillo. The former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency briefed Trump repeatedly in the Oval Office on the daily intelligence. Trump’s “decision to rely upon the word of dictators like Vladimir Putin is an unprecedented betrayal of his oath to the Constitution,” Cardillo wrote in late September. “Our current president bases his decisions on his instincts, and his instincts are based upon a personal value proposition — what’s in it for me?” 

Fixing this problem is not easy. At a minimum, members of the House should be raising the issue and requesting a full disclosure from the president. Journalists should press the same requests – as Guthrie did at the town hall. To get around the expected Trump stonewall, Congress and journalists should be digging deeper into what former Trump officials, like Coats and Cardillo know about his massive debt and foreign business deals.

These inquiries should continue even if Trump loses the election. Documenting the extent of the problem will be necessary for crafting prophylactic solutions for future presidents. These could include requirements that future candidates disclose their tax returns; adopting strict conflict-of-interest and anti-corruption measures for every senior official in the next and all future administrations; enforcing the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution to prevent a future president from profiting from his office; and implementing strict revolving door regulations. 

These ideas enjoy broad support among the voting public and some are included in the platform adopted by the Democratic National Committee, including a pledge to “establish a commission on federal ethics to aggressively enforce and strengthen federal ethics laws, including rules around personal financial disclosures for Executive Branch officials and make campaign finance, financial disclosure, and lobbying disclosure filings easier for the public to access and understand.” Sunshine, as they say, is a powerful disinfectant. 

Until such reforms are implemented and until we know much more about Donald Trump’s mountain of debt, we should be worried. The most immediate correction is, of course, for the American people themselves to simply pull his security clearance — at the ballot box.

Joe Cirincione is a Distinguished Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, DC.