President Trump owes his biggest creditors at least $250 million, according to his federal financial disclosure form. Emphasis on “at least”: the five biggest loans on his form are listed only as more than $50 million. How much more is anyone’s guess. The way that politicians report their personal finances does not provide a full picture of their debts, so it’s impossible to know exactly what Trump owes and to whom.
Yet it’s clearly in the public interest to find out, because red ink is a red flag for corruption. “When you owe someone money, they have potential leverage over you,” said Paul S. Ryan of Common Cause. Conversely, forgiving a loan could be a great way to curry favor with an indebted and unethical president, and, under current law, that could happen in secret.
As Democratic presidential candidates jostle over their personal financial disclosures, voters shouldn’t forget that by far the biggest offender remains the Republican in the White House. Trump is not just a walking advertisement for the weaknesses in America’s disclosure laws — he is a reminder of why we need such anti-corruption laws in the first place. He has notoriously violated the decades-long norm observed by presidential candidates to make their tax returns publicly available. And Trump has shown he is willing to abuse his official powers to advances his own interests. Until the public has total visibility into his potential conflicts of interest, it’ll be too easy for him to get away with it.
Invisible personal debt is just one of the loopholes that needs to be closed, by making candidates give a more specific figure than just above $50 million. That would just be a start. The law requires politicians only to report personal debts like mortgages, not debts owed by companies they control. Trump hasn’t divested his business interests, and he has also been accused of commingled his personal and business debts. “If a lender were to curry the president’s favor by extinguishing his liability for any of the loans . . . it would be impossible to detect,” said a lawsuit seeking to pry more information out of the president.
Making all the president’s business debts public — in addition to his personal debts — would be the best way to deter that sort of corruption and, as a part of broader ethical reforms, it should be a bipartisan priority.
Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates have been flaying one another over lapses in their personal financial transparency that, compared with Trump’s, are trivial. Over the last few weeks, for instance, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., has come under fire for initially refusing to name the clients he advised when he worked as a management consultant more than 10 years ago. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, is being criticized for legal work she did, in some cases, more than 25 years ago.
It’s good that the Democrats are holding themselves to a higher standard than Trump, who has refused even to release his tax returns, breaking with decades of tradition. At this rate, by the end of the primary, Democratic voters will know how many pennies Andrew Yang has in his change jar. But as they fight, they should also draw distinctions. While it’s important to know who Buttigieg or Warren worked for decades ago because a candidate’s background is important to consider, it’s not an ongoing financial relationship that could give rise to the same kind of corruption concerns as Trump’s.
From interest rates to foreign affairs, there are legitimate reasons to wonder whether Trump’s personal financial ties might be influencing his decisions to the detriment of the public interest. Trump’s selection of one of his own golf resorts for a G7 meeting may have been canceled, but the choice itself showed he is willing to use official acts to help himself.
Candidates should release their tax returns — all the major Democratic candidates have either released their returns or pledged to do so — and they should have to level with the American people about their debts. There is just no equivalence between Trump’s scandalous secrecy about his finances and anything the Democratic candidates have done so far, and no voter should lose sight of that.