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Does Trump's 'tightening financial vise' create a security risk?

Trump holding onto power might be one of the few options he has remaining to prevent his creditors from seizing his personal assets.
Image: President DOnald Trump Hosts Roundtable With Hispanic Pastors In The Roosevelt Room Of White House
President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with Hispanic pastors at the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Jan 25, 2019.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

There's no shortage of revelations from the New York Times' reporting on Donald Trump's tax records from the last two decades, though much of the coverage has focused on the fact that the president paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. Given that typical Americans pay vastly more, despite having far less wealth, it's an impossible dynamic to defend.

Also notable, of course, is Trump conceding to the IRS that his private-sector ventures are failures, reinforcing the uncomfortable realization that the president appears to be a spectacularly bad businessman.

But the takeaway from the reporting that may ultimately be the most important is the scope of the Republican's considerable debts and liabilities. The Times found that Trump's finances are "under stress, beset by losses and hundreds of millions of dollars in debt coming due that he has personally guaranteed." The president's personal financial well-being appears to be very much at risk.

[T]he tax records show that Mr. Trump has once again done what he says he regrets, looking back on his early 1990s meltdown: personally guaranteed hundreds of millions of dollars in loans, a decision that led his lenders to threaten to force him into personal bankruptcy. This time around, he is personally responsible for loans and other debts totaling $421 million, with most of it coming due within four years. Should he win re-election, his lenders could be placed in the unprecedented position of weighing whether to foreclose on a sitting president.

As the Times added, the obtained materials paint a picture of a president facing "a tightening financial vise."

This is more than just a point of curiosity about Trump's ineptitude. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) yesterday characterized this as a possible national-security threat to the United States.

"This president appears to have over $400 million in debt. To whom? Different countries? What is the leverage they have? So for me, this is a national security question," Pelosi said in an interview with NBC News' Andrea Mitchell. The Speaker added, "We take an oath to protect and defend. This president is commander in chief. He has exposure to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, to whom?"

In the abstract, this may appear to be a Democratic congressional leader exploiting the latest controversy surrounding a Republican president, but Pelosi's point is too important to dismiss so casually.

The Leader of the Free World owes hundreds of millions of dollars, and we have no idea to whom. He is personally on the hook for these debts; the debts will soon have to be repaid; and given the state of his finances, it's far from clear how Trump will meet his obligations.

If you or I had these kinds of financial liabilities, we wouldn't even be approved for a security clearance, because the security risks would be seen as far too great. And yet, Donald Trump has these liabilities right now -- and he's headed into a re-election fight.

Much has been made in recent years about Trump wanting to stay in power in order to avoid possible prosecutions and to run out the clock on assorted statutes of limitations. But this new angle is arguably even more significant: the Republican may also be desperate to remain in office as a way of staving off his unidentified creditors who will soon expect payment on the president's considerable debts.

Indeed, it's hardly unreasonable to think Trump holding onto power might be one of the few options he has remaining to prevent his creditors from seizing his personal assets.

Rachel asked on the show last night, "How far do you think he'd go to hold on to power in this context? What could possibly go wrong for us as a country? How is a person with liabilities like this in the presidency in the first place?"

These need not be rhetorical questions.

Postscript: Dan Drezner explores the issue in his new column, arguing, "If Donald Trump thinks he is hard up for capital ... he will be vulnerable to manipulation. He viewed running for president in 2016 as a means to enhance his brand. The opposite has occurred. In the interim, Trump has cadged money out of the federal government in every way imaginable. It is not beyond the realm of possibility to think that a desperate Trump, on his way out of the White House, [might try] to pull a Rod Blagojevich."