Since 2015, when he first declared he was running for president, Donald Trump has posed a major national security risk, one that the American people will continue to bear well after his time in office. Trump’s behavior in the White House offered clear evidence that he places his self-interest above that of the American people, whether admiring the Russian government, denying it attacked our political processes, or lavishing effusive praise on President Vladimir Putin, while directing harsh criticism toward the U.S. Intelligence Community and the FBI. Voting him out of office seems an obvious way to mitigate the danger. However, as a former president, Trump will present a different kind of national security risk.
Nearly five decades as a national security professional under eight presidents showed me how important a president’s personal character is to U.S. security. Presidents must possess the moral fiber to gain the trust of the American people and represent American core values. By any measure, Trump failed to meet even the minimum standard for professional ethics and quality of personal morality. Recent media reporting just prior to the election exposed unsecured loans in the amount of 421 million dollars. The reports highlighted the obvious and alarming counterintelligence risks these loans pose to the United States. A frightening scenario is where the owners of Trump’s debt or actors like Putin who have the massive capacity to make him debt free pressure Trump into making decisions that are beneficial to Russia in the final days of his administration, serving as a conduit of Russian disinformation once out of office, or sharing intelligence information after he leaves. While it’s hard to imagine any American president doing any of that, what erodes doubt that Trump is capable of such egregious behavior is his consistent personal and professional approach toward Putin and Russian interests while undermining our country’s critical national security institutions.
Trump’s time in office comes to an end in January. However, as a matter of current policy he will continue to receive intelligence briefings on major foreign policy issues. Providing former presidents these briefings is partially out of courtesy, but also because former presidents can remain involved in significant foreign policy matters. Before a former president engages on an issue, it is necessary that they understand current U.S. foreign policy objectives along with sensitive background information on the person, institution, or nation with whom they are engaging. Assuming President Joe Biden follows custom, Trump would continue to have access to sensitive information that the Russians would consider valuable. As horrifying as it would seem, could a financially leveraged former president be pressured or blackmailed into providing Moscow sensitive information in exchange for financial relief and future Russian business considerations? As a former president and potentially even a return candidate, Trump could also remain politically active and by doing so the Russians could benefit from his nurturing chaos and inflaming divisiveness; all of this in exchange for partial or complete absolution of his hundreds of millions of dollars in loans. Equally frightening is what an angry Trump wounded by his failure to secure a second term may yet do. The history of intelligence is replete with stories of hubris fueled by rage and a sense of personal injustice. Trump has already displayed a knack for attacking those he believes treated him wrongly or robbed him of his “divine right.” Considering how he has reacted to even the most minor slights while in office–how might a “loser” Trump who has now been rejected by the American electorate and perhaps soon by elected Republicans en masse respond? Could he channel his anger by providing intelligence to U.S. adversaries out of revenge? This is not out of the realm of possibility given he has already exposed intelligence for political purposes and personal gain. Whether it is a vindictive former president Trump, a venal former president Trump, or a combination of the two, in the end, it is the American people who will pay the price.
Which raises the question: Could President Biden mitigate future Trump national security risks? There is no perfect solution but there is a partial one. An incoming president is under no obligation to provide intelligence products to any former president. A simple step would be to revoke any intelligence briefing access by Trump. Another and perhaps better option would be to apply routine adjudicative standards for access to classified information; the kind of standard applied to all Americans before being granted a security clearance. With Trump’s unexplained finances, unclear relationships with shadowy Russian figures and espoused admiration for Russia and Putin, this would easily make him ineligible for access to America’s secrets. As it should be.
[Editor’s note: Readers may also be interested in John Sipher’s “Is Trump a Russian Agent?: Explaining Terms of Art and Examining the Facts,” April 16, 2019]