WASHINGTON – Security teams at U.S. spy agencies are constantly scouring employee records for signs of potential compromise: daunting levels of debt, troubling overseas entanglements, hidden streams of income, and a penchant for secrecy or deceit to avoid exposure.
President Donald Trump would check nearly every box of this risk profile based on revelations in The New York Times from his long-secret tax records that former intelligence officials and security experts said raise profound questions about whether he should be trusted to safeguard U.S. secrets and interests.
The records show that Trump has continued to make money off foreign investments and projects while in office, that foreign officials have spent lavishly at his Washington hotel and other properties, and that despite this revenue he is hundreds of millions of dollars in debt with massive payments coming due.
“From a national security perspective, that’s just an outrageous vulnerability,” said Larry Pfeiffer, who served as chief of staff at the CIA. Pfeiffer, who now serves as director of the Hayden Center for Intelligence at George Mason University, said that if he had faced even a fraction of Trump’s financial burden, “there is no question my clearances would be pulled.”
The disclosures show that Trump’s position is more precarious than he has led the public to believe, and he faces the need for a substantial infusion of cash in the coming years to avert potential financial crisis.
As a result, officials and experts said Trump has made himself vulnerable to manipulation by foreign governments aware of his predicament, and put himself in a position in which his financial interests and the nation’s priorities could be in conflict.
The revelations add to long-standing suspicions about Trump’s approach to foreign policy and seeming deference to leaders of countries where he has either pursued real estate projects or could do so after leaving office.
The list includes the Philippines, Russia and Turkey, where Trump has sought to erect office towers bearing his name or made millions of dollars from licensing deals and other ventures.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., accused Trump of putting the country’s security in jeopardy. “This president appears to have over $400 million debt,” Pelosi said in an NBC television interview. “To whom? Different countries? What is the leverage they have?”
“For me,” she said, “this is a national security question.”
Trump dismissed the report on his taxes as “fake news” but has neither directly disputed its most salient assertions – including that he paid $750 in taxes in 2016 and 2017 – nor indicated that he will release his tax records.
Intelligence officials said the magnitude of Trump’s debts pose a vulnerability that is compounded by his determination to prevent his financial records from becoming public.
“It’s the hiding of a vulnerability that is a real indicator” of potential security risk, said Jeffrey Edmonds, a former CIA analyst who served in the Trump White House as deputy director for Russia on the National Security Council. “The more you try to hide something like that, the greater lengths you will go to keep it concealed.”
Officials said the tax records seem to reflect other Trump traits that would probably trouble counterintelligence experts. They cited the disorganized structure of his companies, apparent contempt for the tax code, discrepancies in his valuations of assets, and potentially illegal practice of paying consulting fees to family members.
“All of that goes to how trustworthy a person is to hold highly classified, sensitive material,” Pfeiffer said.
The tax records provide a new lens through which to view Trump’s behavior toward foreign autocrats.
Trump’s aversion to challenging Russian President Vladimir Putin has been particularly baffling to national security officials. Trump has dismissed evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, downplayed reports that Russia paid bounties to forces in Afghanistan targeting U.S. soldiers, and this month refused to even address questions about the poisoning of a Russian political activist.
Beyond his pursuit of a Trump Tower in the Russian capital, the tax files show that Trump made at least $2.3 million from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.
Trump has praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job” in a crackdown on drugs that has killed thousands and been condemned by the State Department. Tax files show that Trump has made millions after licensing his name to a Manila tower 10 years ago.
More recently, Trump boasted to journalist Bob Woodward that he “saved” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from severe repercussions from the United States after the CIA concluded that the Saudi royal was complicit in the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Ethics experts and congressional Democrats have repeatedly raised concerns that Trump is using the office to enrich himself, refusing to recuse himself from the family business even as foreign dignitaries and lobbyists flock to his hotels and other properties.
Lobbyists funded by Saudi Arabia paid for an estimated 500 nights at Trump’s Washington hotel in 2016 within a month of his election, The Post reported in 2018. Then-Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak patronized the Trump hotel in the District of Columbia in 2017.
Officials said that the power of the presidency makes it difficult for U.S. intelligence or national security officials to take any steps to respond to the revelations about Trump and take any steps to minimize risks to security.
“My guess is there may be less detail provided about sources and methods” to Trump than to previous presidents, Pfeiffer said. “But presidents, by our norms and the fact that they have been elected, have access to classified information. You can’t take it to zero.”