Probably my favorite line in any story about Trump published over the last three years: “White House officials say they can only hope he refrains from discussing classified information when he is on them.”
What is life without hope?
No, wait, sorry. This is my favorite line: “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.”
Lotta good lines in this one. Of all the attempts to capture Trump’s approach to government, nothing quite does it like the idea that (a) enemy spies are listening to his private phone calls, (b) he knows it, (c) he DGAF because, well, that’s just the way he is. And no one else will much GAF either. The view on both left and right for the most part will be a fatalistic “this is just how things are now” even though there absolutely would have been impeachment chatter among the House GOP if the Times had dropped a story like this on Obama. (If you thought Emailgate was a strong attack line against Hillary, imagine if she’d been caught using a phone which she knew had been tapped by foreign spooks.) In fact, if I know MAGA Nation, I bet we’ll see a few hot takes online tomorrow that this is all eight-dimensional chess and that Trump wants the Russians and Chinese listening in because it’s easier for him to feed them disinformation that way.
Can you imagine how bored the Russians and Chinese must be listening to endless hours of Trump talking about his favorite segments from that morning’s episode of “Fox & Friends”?
Mr. Trump’s aides have repeatedly warned him that his cellphone calls are not secure, and they have told him that Russian spies are routinely eavesdropping on the calls, as well. But aides say the voluble president, who has been pressured into using his secure White House landline more often these days, has still refused to give up his iPhones. White House officials say they can only hope he refrains from discussing classified information when he is on them…
American spy agencies, the officials said, had learned that China and Russia were eavesdropping on the president’s cellphone calls from human sources inside foreign governments and intercepting communications between foreign officials.
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.
Reportedly Trump pals Stephen Schwarzman and Steve Wynn are prime targets of the Chinese influence campaign. Beijing feeds information to people who are in contact with Schwartzman and Wynn, and hopes/trusts that they’ll feed it to Trump when they chat. Schwartzman and Wynn probably don’t even know they’re being used as go-betweens. As Chinese intelligence listens in to Trump’s calls, they get a picture of which of his friends has the most sway and which arguments are most likely to persuade him. If in the near future Hannity starts coming out hard against tariffs and occasionally lapsing into mandarin during his show, now you’ll know why.
POTUS will cry “fake news” about this but Politico reported in May that he was using cell phones that lacked sophisticated security features and that White House aides were worried about it. I wrote about it here. He’s been warned about this for months, both privately and in print in hopes of publicly shaming him into using better operational security. The Politico story came packaged with reasons for hope from White House aides that the problem was overblown, though, as I noted in the earlier post: “Security tech is better now than it was even two years ago, said one source to Politico, and Trump’s call-only phone is swapped out on a regular basis.” Apparently that security tech isn’t good enough, if the Times’s sources are correct. And as for regularly replacing his phones, “Mr. Trump is supposed to swap out his two official phones every 30 days for new ones but rarely does, bristling at the inconvenience.”
So even the White House’s reassurances in May are now up in smoke. No wonder they’re whispering to the Times, hoping that the sheer embarrassment of this scoop will get him to change his ways.
There is some good news, though. Forget everything I said up top: This is absolutely, without question my favorite line(s) about Trump.
Administration officials said Mr. Trump’s longtime paranoia about surveillance — well before coming to the White House he believed his phone conversations were often being recorded — gave them some comfort that he was not disclosing classified information on the calls. They said they had further confidence he was not spilling secrets because he rarely digs into the details of the intelligence he is shown and is not well versed in the operational specifics of military or covert activities.
He just doesn’t pay close enough attention to the details of his job to pose a real security risk. Whew?
If you’re wondering why you should care that enemy spies are listening in on the president and the idea of enemy spies listening in on the president isn’t enough for you, I guarantee that there’ll be hearings on this next year in the House if Democrats clean up this fall. (There should be hearings regardless but good luck getting the GOP to bite.) It’s all upside for Pelosi: It’ll humiliate Trump, that humiliation will thrill her base, and it just might achieve something productive by getting him to take this matter seriously. He can yell “fake news” now but that’ll be much harder if/when intel people are under oath on television testifying that yes, it’s true, and yes, they warned him.