Why Trump's massive debt creates potential conflicts of interest

There's a lot to unpack from the New York Times article on President Donald Trump's tax returns and a lot is being made of how little Trump has paid in income taxes over the last 15 years. But for financial watchdogs in Washington, the enormous amount of debt Trump is carrying — possibly in excess of $1 billion — alarms them.

"There is a tendency for those in dire financial straits to have a competing interest with the broader public interest as opposed to their own survival," said Kedric Payne, former deputy chief counsel in the Office of Congressional Ethics and now the general counsel and senior director of ethics at Campaign Legal Center.

The conflict of interest is exacerbated as hundreds of millions of dollars of Trump's debts are being held by persons or entities who have tremendous leverage over the president but whose identities are being kept secret. Experts, including Donald Sherman, the deputy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, say there is a serious concern that U.S. national security has been compromised.

"Those individuals, those entities, that own the president's debt have an enormous amount of influence on our commander-in-chief, which puts Americans' safety at risk," Sherman said.

The average American pays an estimated 25% of their income in taxes. The average New York State resident pays more than $7,500 in federal income taxes alone each year.

Experts say the revelation that Trump paid just $750 in 2016 and 2017 — and paid nothing in 10 of the last 15 years — presents a clear ethics issue and possibly a criminal one. 

Trump derides the New York Times report as a "fake" but during a 2016 debate against Hillary Clinton, he said he didn't pay taxes "because I'm smart."

Sherman has a different way of explaining it, beginning with a simple question for all Americans. 

"I'd ask them how much they paid in taxes and whether they think it's fair for any billionaire, particularly a billionaire who is running our government, making decisions about our tax laws, to pay far less than what they've been asked to pay to support key government functions," Sherman said.

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