Donald Trump has never been a person who comes to mind when one thinks “cybersecurity”—he may not even know how to use a computer—but even by that low bar, the president and his administration have barely been able to keep it together when it comes to the security risk posed by cell phones. A report in the New York Times on Wednesday shows that the situation has not improved from the last time we heard of it. One time, Trump reportedly even left his cell phone behind in a golf cart.
The presidency is often described as a lonely job, a matter made worse by the security arrangements that isolate them from both friends and the public. Trump, though, really likes tweeting and spends a lot of his time venting and soliciting advice on the phone. According to the Times, sources told the paper Trump has been repeatedly informed that his cell phones are not a safe channel to communicate and have been compromised by, at the very least, Russian and Chinese intelligence services.
Yet he insists on using them—including two Secret Service-provided iPhones and an even less secure personal one—and aides “can only hope” that he isn’t been discussing classified information on them, the Times wrote:
Mr. Trump’s aides have repeatedly warned him that his mobile phone 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 mobile phone calls from human sources inside foreign governments and intercepting communications between foreign officials.
(While the Times noted that the president is paranoid about being recorded, hope will only get one so far with an infamous blabbermouth that is almost certainly discussing whatever secrets—let alone merely sensitive internal information—he wants with reckless abandon.)
According to the Times, administration officials have become aware the Chinese have used the content of the calls to try and “influence” people they believe have sway over him, like his rich buddies and Fox News hosts. Those with even a minimal amount of awareness about the history of espionage will be aware that “influence” does not always mean “have a friendly, non-confrontational discussion with.”
However, the paper wrote that the Chinese government has remained relatively subtle so far, with one source disclosing only that it tasked “Chinese businessmen and others with ties to Beijing” to try and direct the thinking of Trump’s inner circle:
One official said the Chinese were pushing for the friends to persuade Mr. Trump to sit down with Mr. Xi as often as possible. The Chinese, the official said, correctly perceive that Mr. Trump places tremendous value on personal relationships, and that one-on-one meetings yield breakthroughs far more often than regular contacts between Chinese and American officials.
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was the first president in office to use a smartphone, but most of its features were eliminated to limit the number of ways in which it could be compromised. As the Times noted, it did not make calls, send or receive text messages, and it was only enabled to use a single secure email address in limited circulation.
In some ways, the Times added, the president’s comparative lack of technical savvy has been a boon: It’s hard for opponents to target email accounts or SMS messages when Trump does not use them. His famous ignorance, which has led him to skip security briefings and U.S. intelligence officials to keep reports brief and tidy, also limits his exposure to some classified data.
But he is also just incredibly sloppy with his phones, the sources told the Times:
Last year, Mr. Trump’s mobile phone 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.
Mr. Trump is supposed to swap out his two official phones every 30 days for new ones but rarely does, bristling at the inconvenience.
If it disturbs you to keep in mind that this is the man in control of the world’s most powerful military and a nuclear arsenal capable of devastating the world several times over, don’t worry. There are allegedly some people in the White House ready to step in and do absolutely nothing if he ever does anything stupid.