OPINION: There’s no way to stop an ex-president from selling U.S. intelligence secrets

Any former chief executive knows he sits atop a gold mine of information.

What’s to stop an unscrupulous American president from walking out the door with armfuls of classified information after losing an election? The short answer appears to be: not much. And though experts are openly worrying that Donald Trump might disclose such information after leaving office, it’s worth worrying about the possibility that he might seek to trade in hard-won intelligence for his own purposes.

Trump is a compromised individual who needs money — fast. The New York Times recently reported that he personally owes $421 million in the next four years, to unknown individuals and entities. He might even be on the hook for more than $1 billion dollars across his hotels, golf courses and other buildings.

It’s unclear who will collect this eye-popping bill when it comes due. Knowing that his flagship firm didn’t ask many questions when financing was involved, it’s not improbable that foreign entities or governments bankrolled these loans. After all, under Trump’s leadership, the Trump Organization appears to have engaged in deceptive business practices. It was also willing to do business with shady individuals, most notably inking a financial relationship in 2012 with a known Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps money launderer in Azerbaijan.

Given all of that, Trump must know he sits atop a gold mine of information about secret U.S. intentions, efforts and limitations. As commander in chief, Trump has access to all the top tier national security intelligence at his fingertips. He can also declassify anything almost at will, and can pardon anyone for any federal crime.

An unscrupulous president could order up all the intelligence on any foreign leader — their strengths and their vulnerabilities — who he might want to do business with in the future. He would have the full financial intelligence abilities of the U.S. Government. He would know what new investments in top secret military technology we are developing for the next generation. He would know which leaders’ phones we’ve compromised or whose emails we’re reading. He could gather critical sources and methods. And then he could sell them to the highest bidder.

Of course, Trump is neither detail-oriented nor a reliable source of facts, but he would nevertheless control the proverbial keys to the intelligence kingdom until Jan. 20. This information was collected at great cost to the American taxpayer. It would also be worth a great deal of money in Moscow, Beijing, Riyadh, Istanbul and beyond.

There are severe criminal consequences for making money this way. As national security attorney Bradley Moss noted, it’s a felony to disseminate classified information or documents without authorization. What’s more, he said, “Doing so for profit could implicate additional criminal provisions. Plain and simple.” The trouble, as he also observed, is that “there is no precedent in modern history for a former president to be indicted in this context.”

An unscrupulous president knows he could strip America’s national security down to its studs while also realizing that prosecuting a former president for serious crimes would be political dynamite for the White House’s next occupant. Imagine night after night of Fox News pundits and right-wing cranks on Facebook bellowing about how the “deep state” or “the Democrats” are railroading a beloved president on fabricated charges. This narrative would dominate the media for months, drowning out other tough policy fights the current president might be facing. An unscrupulous ex-president’s political party would fall over themselves to defend him in front of the cameras. They’d probably even fundraise off the controversy.

A current president would thus have two choices: to burn a great deal of political capital to make the federal charges stick to an unscrupulous former one, or throw up his hands and let his predecessor get away with it. Either way, it subjects an exhausted country to another round of the media circus, and would give the unscrupulous ex-president’s political party’s chieftains the ability to run on something for the next election. And there’s always another election.

An unscrupulous president could also possibly pre-pardon himself for crimes committed, though constitutional scholars remain divided on whether he can actually do this. As Asha Rangappa has shown, an unscrupulous president’s loyal attorney general could even “poison” future cases by drafting internal Office of Legal Counsel memos to deliberately stymie future prosecutors.

But it’s not just the chief executive himself; it would be for the other courtiers in his orbit. Trump’s daughter and son-in-law have security clearances, as well, despite the objections of multiple career officials, Trump’s own lawyer, and then-chief of staff. In other words, they have access to valuable intelligence, too.

To be sure, perhaps the White House’s current occupant is actually a scrupulous man, given to honesty and fair-dealing. Perhaps he and his family would never consider compromising our national security to our adversaries for money, or power, or leverage. Surely they’ll vacate the White House while taking nothing of importance with them and leaving our national security intact. All the times Trump blabbed about classified information — like bragging to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte about the position of two nuclear submarines, or tweeting the faces of Navy SEALs while in Iraq, or publicly showcasing an image from a multibillion-dollar spy satellite, or revealing Israel’s clandestine efforts in Syria to the Russian ambassador — those were all honest mistakes that didn’t endanger our national security.

A sitting president could very seriously and privately tell an unscrupulous former one not to engage in the trading of secrets for money, and put it in writing. But Trump, his family, and their flunkies probably won’t listen to a stern tongue-wagging from their political adversaries. They know that federal judges who owe their lifetime appointments to his efforts will probably protect him, as will a compliant political party and allied media outlets.

An unscrupulous president has lived his entire life escaping the consequences of his behavior. Why should that luck run out now?

Aki PeritzAki Peritz is a former CIA analyst and author. His next book, out in summer 2021 from Potomac Books/The University of Nebraska Press, will be about the largest counterterrorism operation in history.Follow