Americans might be rationally ignorant when it comes to politics, but we all have to file tax returns. Folks know that $750 is a laughably paltry amount. It leads to observations like this one that no amount of prevarication or explanation can undo:
Beyond the political implications, however, the Times report also suggested some national security concerns. David Leonhardt summarizes the problem:
In the 1990s, Mr. Trump nearly ruined himself by personally guaranteeing hundreds of millions of dollars in loans, and he has since said that he regretted doing so. But he has taken the same step again, his tax records show. He appears to be responsible for loans totaling $421 million, most of which is 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. Whether he wins or loses, he will probably need to find new ways to use his brand — and his popularity among tens of millions of Americans — to make money.
It should be noted, however, that just because Trump’s sources of income appear to be limited does not mean that he is poor. As Josh Barro correctly observed, Trump owns a fair amount of assets that would fetch a decent price. Nonetheless, Trump has personally pledged to pay hundreds of millions in the next few years, and it is far from clear that his properties will earn that amount over the same time.
Multiple national security analysts have pointed out that large debts are a red flag for obtaining national security clearances. In an interview with NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) explicitly raised this concern: “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. … 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? The public has a right to know.”
This seems like a legitimate concern! According to the Times report, Turkey’s authoritarian government appears to have been the most explicit at linking bilateral ties with barely concealed bribes: “When Turkish-American relations were at a low point, a Turkish business group canceled a conference at Mr. Trump’s Washington hotel; six months later, when the two countries were on better terms, the rescheduled event was attended by Turkish government officials. Turkish Airlines also chose the Trump National Golf Club in suburban Virginia to host an event.” Vox’s Alex Ward details further concerns in this area.
At a minimum, Trump’s looming debt gives the appearance of a national security concern. If he ever acknowledged the reporting to be true, Trump would probably say that the coverage of his debts makes him look weak, so weak to foreign interlocutors.
The thing is, I am not sure Trump is as vulnerable as folks want him to be. According to Forbes, Trump’s net wealth remains somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billion. If he had to pay back all of his outstanding personal debts by liquidating his assets, he could do so and remain a billionaire.
Furthermore, if Trump possesses one business skill, it has been his consistent ability over decades to outfox his creditors:
According to the Times, Trump may have already tapped a lot of his one-off steps to raise capital. That said, there are probably a few more legal and financial stratagems at his avail to delay repayment.
There is, finally, a variation of Keynes’s dictum: When you owe the bank a million dollars, that’s your problem. When you owe the bank in excess of $400 million, that is the bank’s problem. The likelihood of Trump’s creditors cooperating with Trump to ensure a greater likelihood of repayment is far greater than the notion of foreign creditors putting the screws to him in an act of economic coercion.
So, in actuality, Trump is much less vulnerable to foreign creditors than it might seem. The question, however, is whether Trump himself recognizes this reality. And this is where I cannot shake one Trump anecdote that Mother Jones’s Tim Murphy recently recounted:
[In 1990] spy correspondent Julius Lowenthal wanted to know just how cheap some of the city’s richest figures were. So he set up a company, called the National Refund Clearinghouse, and sent letters with checks for $1.11 enclosed, “for services that you were overcharged for.” The letters went out to 58 “well-known, well-heeled Americans,” 26 of whom promptly cashed them. Curious as to how low they might go, Lowenthal sent those 26 “nabobs” a second refund check, for $0.64. This time, 13 people cashed them.Finally, he sent those 13 respondents a check for $0.13. This time, only two people cashed the check. One was an arms dealer. The other was Donald Trump.
If Donald Trump thinks he is hard up for capital, then none of the previous paragraphs matter. 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, tried to pull a Rod Blagojevich.
Trump’s finances are probably stronger than his tax filings suggest. The question is whether he knows this to be true.