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Here's why former intelligence officials are worried about Trump's massive debt

Sean D. Naylor and Jenna McLaughlin
·.
·7-min read

For many observers, the biggest takeaway of the New York Times’s bombshell report on President Trump’s finances is how often in recent years he has paid little to no income tax, but for former intelligence officials, it’s the potential of his massive debt to make him susceptible to foreign influence.

The Times exposé, which is based on years of Trump’s tax returns obtained by the paper, said the president “is personally responsible for loans and other debts totaling $421 million, with most of it coming due within four years.”

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to journalists as he departs the White House September 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Trump speaks to journalists as he departs the White House on Saturday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Times report said the scale of the president’s debts, with few obvious income streams to service them, paints a picture of “a businessman-president in a tightening financial vise.”

Intelligence professionals declared themselves stunned by the news of the debts, because of what those debts imply about the president’s vulnerability to foreign influence. “It’s just mind-boggling,” one former counterintelligence officer told Yahoo News.

Trump’s public financial disclosures since he became president have named his lenders and the broad range of the amounts he owes to each — for instance, one loan from Deutsche Bank that matures in 2024 is listed as simply “over $50,000,000.” But the Times report puts a precise figure on the debt and illustrates the trouble the president might have servicing it, and in doing so, helps explain why that debt is a weakness that, according to former CIA officials, could be used by foreign intelligence services.

Adversarial foreign intelligence services “penetrate banks for this very kind of information,” said Douglas London, a former senior operations officer and counterintelligence expert with the CIA. “The idea that he is in so much debt, there is no doubt in my mind that hostile intelligence services knew that,” agreed Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA official.

But rather than seek to formally recruit Trump as an intelligence asset, those spy services are more likely to have tried to use any control they might have over the financial institutions that hold his debts to persuade Trump to adopt policies to their liking, according to Polymeropoulos. In such a scenario, Trump would have become what is known in the intelligence community as “an agent of influence,” he said.

“It’s a huge concern among people who look at counterintelligence because this would be a glaring sign for any hostile intelligence service,” Polymeropoulos said. “Financial vulnerabilities are at the top of the list when you pursue targets, period.”

These counterintelligence concerns will not dissipate even if Trump loses November’s presidential election, according to Frank Figliuzzi, former assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, who suggested that foreign intelligence agencies might then try to make him a paid agent. “Presidents are privy to sensitive details that our adversaries want,” Figliuzzi said. “He’ll need a way out of his crushing debt, and foreign intel services will be happy to help him — for a price. That’s why we need to resolve this national security concern regardless of election outcome.”

Frank Figliuzzi (FBI)
Frank Figliuzzi. (FBI)

While personal debt may be a concern, some officials said that doesn’t mean Trump himself necessarily poses a risk. “Donald Trump, to be fair to him, has shown repeatedly over the course of his career that he can have these huge amounts of debt and these business challenges and still find his way out of it and be, quote unquote, successful,” said a former national security official in the George W. Bush administration, adding that he saw no evidence that links Trump’s debts to any Russian influence.

“I just don’t think that this tells us that much about his vulnerability to foreign pressure,” the former Bush administration official said. “I know that’s the story everyone wants to tell, but I’m not sure that’s right.”

David Charney, a psychiatrist with a long history of assessing intelligence officers, including notable traitors like the FBI’s Robert Hanssen, was also skeptical that Trump’s debts might lead him to grant favors to foreign powers. In situations like Trump’s, “the lender is under more pressure than the borrower to get at least something coming back their way instead of nothing,” Charney said. “Do I think that would pressure a person like Trump to become vulnerable to exploitation or threats of exposure or manipulation? In a word, no.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Several former intelligence officials identified Russia as the country they were most concerned about when it came to gaining influence over Trump. Then-special counsel Robert Mueller led a lengthy investigation of the Trump 2016 presidential campaign’s links to Russia but found no evidence of collusion, and according to the Times, the president’s tax returns reveal “no previously unreported connections to Russia.”

Trump has always rejected allegations that Russia has any influence over him, even as he has repeatedly declined to criticize the country’s dictatorial president, Vladimir Putin.

Such denials have done little to calm the fears of seasoned intelligence professionals in the United States, however, who said it would be relatively easy for foreign spy services to find out the details of Trump’s debts. “Penetrating a foreign bank is not like going after the North Korean nuclear program,” Polymeropoulos said. “The scary thing is that we all learn about this now, three and a half years into the presidency, while probably a lot of bad actors knew about this previously.”

The Times report makes clear that Trump’s most reliable source of income in recent years came from his starring role in the reality television series “The Apprentice,” which together with endorsement and licensing deals has paid him $427 million. But someone with an income so dependent on the public’s perception of his business acumen would have been even more vulnerable to intelligence services threatening to expose the fact that his corporate empire appeared to be a house of cards, according to former intelligence officials.

Donald Trump attends "Celebrity Apprentice" Red Carpet Event at Trump Tower on January 20, 2015 in New York City.  (Rob Kim/Getty Images)
Trump attends a “Celebrity Apprentice” red carpet event at Trump Tower in 2015. (Rob Kim/Getty Images)

“It’s not just the money alone,” London said. “It’s the exposure of those financial difficulties that threatens their brand and reputation, which makes them vulnerable.”

A number of members of the intelligence community said that Trump’s financial peril would almost certainly make him ineligible for a security clearance if he were a normal individual. “Botched finances is the No. 1 reason for your security clearance to be denied or suspended,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior CIA official. “First, because it makes you more vulnerable to bribes in exchange for secrets. But more importantly, it shows a level of self-control, judgment and adherence to the law that raises serious questions of the person’s reliability and trustworthiness to protect classified information.”

The president, however, is not subject to the normal background investigations and requirements that are required to get a security clearance, nor can he be stripped of a clearance. “In our system there’s only one way to remove a president’s access to classified information for any reason,” said Pfeiffer. “Removal from office.”

A former counterintelligence officer called for greater transparency regarding presidents’ finances and lamented how long it had taken Americans to learn the details of Trump’s. “It’s a little late now,” the former counterintelligence officer said. “It’s right at the window of an election that we discover this. We should have known these things four years ago.”

The former George W. Bush administration national security official decried the fact that Trump’s enormously complicated financial situation had become public due to what he described as the “illegal act” of somebody sharing the president’s tax returns with the New York Times. Even so, he added, “now we know, and voters can act accordingly.”

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