President Donald Trump crosses his arms as he listens during a White House meeting with Hispanic leaders, July 9, 2020, in Washington, DC.

What Trump’s taxes mean for national security

Susan Hennessey, executive editor of the Lawfare blog, said that Donald Trump's taxes raise serious questions about the president's debts.

The World

President Donald Trump listens during a White House meeting with Hispanic leaders, July 9, 2020, in Washington, DC.

Evan Vucci, File/AP

At last, a little over a month before the US general election Nov. 3, the public is getting a glimpse into President Donald Trump's taxes.

The New York Times acquired more than two decades' worth of tax records that the president has refused to make public. They paint a picture of a businessman who took extraordinary measures to avoid paying taxes and also incurred huge financial losses.

One striking takeaway: Trump paid just $750 in federal income tax in 2016, the year he was elected president. Another finding in the documents: Trump had his hands on a lot of foreign money.

To understand the national security implications of Trump's tax returns, The World's host Marco Werman spoke to Susan Hennessey, the executive editor of the blog Lawfare and a senior fellow in national security in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. She’s the co-author of "Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump's War on the World's Most Powerful Office" and was previously an attorney at the National Security Agency. 

Related: Retired army commander: US institutions 'will ensure a peaceful transition of power'

Marco Werman: What do you find most striking in the new disclosures? 

Susan Hennessey: The fact that the president of the United States owes somewhere between $300 and $400 million in debt, that is going to come payable over the next four years, that mere fact alone, raises really, really serious questions about who the president owes money to, and whether or not those debts, when they finally come due, might ultimately induce or influence the president to do some things that are more in his personal financial interest than in the interests of the United States. And I really think the way to think about that is as a national security issue. 

Right, it's not just the amount, but to whom some of this $400 million is owed. Who do we think he owes money to? 

We have to be careful in how much we can infer from the reporting about these tax returns. Tax returns are not comprehensive financial disclosures. That said, these documents do strongly suggest that the president owes a significant amount of money to foreign banks, foreign companies or foreign governments. So, we see the amount of money that Donald Trump has paid in taxes to foreign countries. He's paid more to the Philippines, to Turkey, to India in the first year of his presidency than he actually paid in federal income tax to the United States government. That certainly strongly suggests the degree of entanglement with foreign interests in particular, also with countries that have quite sensitive business with the United States. I think these documents raise really serious questions. They don't provide comprehensive answers, at least not yet, based on what the public has been able to see. 

So, we know that Trump had been doing business with Georgians, Kazakhs. There are, of course, the golf courses in Scotland. Could those be places where the debt is being held? And why do the documents not show to whom the money is owed? 

Yes, it certainly could. All these could be sources where this debt is held, and we would imagine that there are likely multiple sources considering the sheer scope and size of the debt. And again, we aren't just concerned about who specifically the president might owe money to, but also whether or not the existence of the debt might offer other avenues in which to influence him. The way we think about this is a foreign government or foreign country being able to provide a thing of value to the president of the United States. The framers of the Constitution actually explicitly forbade that in dual emoluments clauses. And so, these really are sort of core, national interests of the United States. 

RelatedNever before have threats to US democracy been so grave, says political scientist

So, the emoluments clause was one check the framers established to avoid foreign entanglements for the occupants of the White House. Why are checks like that not working now? 

The framers of the Constitution really knew that they had to guard against this idea of corruption or else the entire system itself would crumble. Our system really, really depends on the legitimacy of public officials who are working for the public good and not for private gain. They talk a lot about the need to separate the love of power and love of money, as Benjamin Franklin puts it. And so, in part, they do this by creating structural separation of powers. They do this through these emoluments clauses. And this is because they really, really don't want the president being bought off or influenced by foreign governments or by individual states. It's also the reason why the framers insisted the president of the United States accept a salary. They wanted the president to be an employee of the United States, to be deriving his source of income only from his job as a public official because of this really, really fundamental concern of outside interests, sort of working to influence the president's thinking, considering the really astonishing amount of power and authority that the American system vests in the American executive. 

What are you waiting to see happens next with this whole situation, with tax returns and the indebtedness? 

The mere fact that we do not know the amount of money that the president might owe to foreign governments or foreign interests, that itself is a national security risk. That itself is a national security threat to the United States. And so, I think the immediate question is to what extent are the public — the American electorate and American voters — going to decide that this is not a risk that we can continue to take moving forward and to express that in who they vote for this election? 

Speaking of risks, if President Trump wasn't in the Oval Office but still had the sort of debt, taxes and financial peril reflected in these tax documents, would he pass a security clearance? 

I think unquestionably no. A lot of people have speculated on whether or not these tax returns, in combination with other financial disclosures, reveal some kind of criminal misconduct. We don't know the answer to that. That said, in the security clearance process in the United States for individuals who hold these sensitive clearances, access to classified information, the issue of debt, the issue of any kind of financial stress or strain and very, very specific examination of sources of money is central to that process. I find it really, really difficult, if not impossible, to believe that somebody who had this kind of exposure that is shown in these documents could, in fact, obtain a security clearance. 

The president of the United States does not obtain a security clearance. He is vested by certificate of election. That said, this also raises really serious questions about his children, who the president has brought into the White House and has reportedly exerted some political and very unusual influence over the security clearance process in order to grant those security clearances to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner over the objections of career officials. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Will you help our nonprofit newsroom today?

Every week, more than 2 million listeners tune into our broadcast and follow our digital coverage like this story, which is available to read for free thanks to charitable contributions from listeners like you. But less than 1% of our audience supports our program directly. From now through the end of the year, every gift will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor, which means your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 challenge match.

Will you join our growing list of loyal supporters and double your impact today?