First it was conversations with Russian officials in the Oval Office. Then it was meetings with Japanese and Chinese leaders in the dining room at Mar-a-Lago. Now, the New York Times is going after President Trump for his insistence on talking to friends and family on his personal cell phone – which he has refused to give up, despite pleas from his national security staff.
After the close of a frantic trading day punctuated by a flurry of bomb scares that captivated the national media for most of the session, the New York Times has dropped is latest Trump “bombshell” late Wednesday, claiming that China and Russia are routinely spying on Trump’s personal calls, and are using the information gleaned from their surveillance to steer an influence campaign intended to soften President Trump’s protectionist policies (and, ideally, drop his trade war against Beijing).
Citing officials “who spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could discuss classified intelligence and sensitive security arrangements” the Times reported that American spy agencies had learned that China and Russia were eavesdropping on the president’s calls from “human sources inside foreign governments” and were “intercepting communications between foreign officials.” Intelligence officials can only hope that Trump, who only uses the White House land line for official business, but prefers to use his personal phone to kibbitz with friends, isn’t spouting classified intelligence during these calls (which, we imagine, are also being monitored by US spies as well).
One of Trump’s personal phones hasn’t been modified by his national security team and is “no different from millions of iPhones in use around the world.”
Officials said the president has two official iPhones that have been altered by the National Security Agency to limit their capabilities — and vulnerabilities — and a third personal phone that is no different from hundreds of millions of iPhones in use around the world. Mr. Trump keeps the personal phone, White House officials said, because unlike his other two phones, he can store his contacts in it.
The Times identified Blackstone Group President Stephen Schwartzman and Wynn Resorts founder Steve Wynn as two locuses of the Chinese influence campaign, which the Times said is intended to target “friends of friends.”
The officials said they have also determined that China is seeking to use what it is learning from the calls — how Mr. Trump thinks, what arguments tend to sway him and to whom he is inclined to listen — to keep a trade war with the United States from escalating further. In what amounts to a marriage of lobbying and espionage, the Chinese have pieced together a list of the people with whom Mr. Trump regularly speaks in hopes of using them to influence the president, the officials said.
Among those on the list are Stephen A. Schwarzman, the Blackstone Group chief executive who has endowed a master’s program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Steve Wynn, the former Las Vegas casino magnate who used to own a lucrative property in Macau.
The Chinese have identified friends of both men and others among the president’s regulars, and are now relying on Chinese businessmen and others with ties to Beijing to feed arguments to the friends of the Trump friends. The strategy is that those people will pass on what they are hearing, and that Beijing’s views will eventually be delivered to the president by trusted voices, the officials said. They added that the Trump friends were most likely unaware of any Chinese effort.
If anything, at least the intelligence community can take comfort in the fact that Trump’s relative lack of tech savvy leaves him invulnerable to phishing attacks (since he doesn’t use email) and his twitter phone can only connect over a secure wi-fi connection (lest the Chinese learn the text of all the president’s tweets that go unsent).
Still, Mr. Trump’s lack of tech savvy has alleviated some other security concerns. He does not use email, so the risk of a phishing attack like those used by Russian intelligence to gain access to Democratic Party emails is close to nil. The same goes for texts, which are disabled on his official phones.
His Twitter phone can connect to the internet only over a Wi-Fi connection, and he rarely, if ever, has access to unsecured wireless networks, officials said. But the security of the device ultimately depends on the user, and protecting the president’s phones has sometimes proved difficult.
Trump memorably caused a stir earlier this year when he left his phone in a golf cart at his course in Bedminster New Jersey, causing a short-lived but intense panic.
Last year, Mr. Trump’s cellphone was left behind in a golf cart at his club in Bedminster, N.J., causing a scramble to locate it, according to two people familiar with what took place.
The anxieties over foreign leaders eavesdropping on Trump are probably justified, but it’s important to remember that US intelligence agencies routinely tap the communications of foreign leaders – friends and foes alike. Who could forget when Edward Snowden triggered a mini-diplomatic crisis by revealing that the US had tapped the phone of Angela Merkel. And as careful as Obama was, it’s highly probably that some of his communications were intercepted, too.
Ultimately, the one thing that will likely thwart the Chinese influence campaign is President Trump’s famously fickle attitudes toward ideas and people. Even his closest advisors can’t keep up – let alone people who are friends of his friends. Of course, China should be given credit for their savvy influence campaigns – because look how they’ve helped to defuse the trade tensions between the US and China.