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What Happens if the President is a Security Risk?

January 9, 2017

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Kathleen Parker, a conservative (sic) columnist for the Washington Post, has just published a remarkable piece which concludes as follows:

In sum, when the president-elect persists in a state of denial, siding with the enemy against his own country’s best interests, one is forced to consider that Trump himself poses a threat to national security.

In Russia, they’d just call it treason.

She is certainly not the only person to be puzzled and alarmed about the significance of Trump’s contempt for and rejection of the US Intelligence Community and his persistent fawning admiration for Vladimir Putin.  What does it mean that he refuses to acknowledge Russian meddling in the US election for his benefit?  Or that more than once he urged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton?

Let me ask a related question:  If Trump weren’t elected president, could he be approved for the security clearance required of the people who prepare the daily intelligence brief that he thinks he doesn’t need?

Anyone who works in the US intelligence community, or who has access to sensitive intelligence reports produced by it, must have a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) clearance.  (The president, of course, automatically has access to everything.)  To obtain such a clearance, an applicant has to provided detailed personal information prior to undergoing a thorough background check, in the course of which investigators typically interview neighbors, work associates, and others who know the person being cleared.

The investigation would normally focus on three basic areas:

  • personal history and lifestyle (for example, criminal charges or convictions, sexual conduct that might make someone susceptible to blackmail, drug use, gambling, etc.)
  • financial assets and liabilities (for example, past bankruptcies, credit history, who does the person owe money to, where are his assets located and who else has an interest in them, etc.) and
  • associations with foreign governments or individuals.

The objective, obviously, is to ferret out anything that might make someone subject to influence by anyone hostile to US national interests and security.

Leaving aside Trump’s personal history and lifestyle issues, it is truly astonishing how little is known (at least to the American public and press) about his financial ties and foreign associations.  Trump’s absolute refusal to follow precedent and release his tax returns certainly feeds the belief that he is hiding things that are at least highly embarrassing or at worse disqualifying to hold the presidency.  The amazing thing is that he has gotten away with it!  No one really talks about that anymore.

Nor has this country ever had a president with such a far flung web of foreign business holdings which inevitably involve dealings with foreign governments and officials.  The foreign emoluments clause of the constitution pretty clearly requires that he divest himself of those assets or place them in a true blind trust, particularly since the Trump organization is a privately held corporation.  Merely handing them over to Donald Jr., Eric, or Ivanka and her husband–all of whom Trump is trying to bring into his administration is one capacity or another–is plainly not enough.  The extent of his foreign holdings and liabilities has not been made public, and it appears that Trump intends to stonewall on this just as he did on his tax returns.

But it’s the Russian connection that is the most disturbing.  Unless there is transparency about Trump’s dealings with Putin and the Russian government,  banks, and oligarchs, then the working assumption must be that he is likely beholden to them in ways we have yet to learn. But the odds are that we will get no more disclosures from him by January 20–or ever–than we have now, which is exactly nothing.

There are just too many red flags here to justify granting a security clearance to anyone else with such information gaps, but of course Trump isn’t anyone else–he will be the president.

Our government is simply not equipped to deal with a president who refuses to abide by long-established norms of conduct. Congress could demand an investigation, but with a Republican majority in place, it won’t.  The Democrats, the media, and the American public need to continue to make a stink about this.  Trump is counting on a short attention span to make suspicions about the “Siberian candidate” go away.

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