Spy services around the world routinely surveil foreign politicians, so a New York Times report that both China and Russia have been monitoring U.S. President Donald Trump’s cellphone calls isn’t particularly surprising. But Trump brought additional attention to the story this morning, claiming in a tweet that “I rarely use a cellphone” — the latest in his series of over 39,000 Twitter posts that have come at all hours since 2009, largely from iPhones.
The initial report said that Trump has three iPhones, two “official” ones with “limited abilities” and a third “no different” from consumer models, which he collectively uses to call friends and TV hosts to discuss gripes, gossip, and public perception — potentially including classified information. Despite specific warnings from aides that Russians have been listening to his calls, and spy agency discoveries of similar eavesdropping by China, the report says Trump has “refused to give up his iPhones.”
Calling the article “boring” and “soooo wrong,” Trump initially claimed that he has “only one seldom used government cell phone,” which might be interpreted as claiming that only one of his cell phones is “seldom used.” But hours later, he revisited the topic, calling his use of cellphones rare and in any case “government authorized.”
The New York Times has a new Fake Story that now the Russians and Chinese (glad they finally added China) are listening to all of my calls on cellphones. Except that I rarely use a cellphone, & when I do it’s government authorized. I like Hard Lines. Just more made up Fake News!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 25, 2018
As the report notes, calls from any phone can easily be intercepted as they pass through carriers’ cell towers, cables, and switches, vulnerabilities that more highly secured 5G networks — perhaps without Chinese components — are expected to mitigate. The same is true with cellular data, though additional encryption techniques can be used to make content more difficult to crack. Regardless, China’s President Xi and Russian President Putin are said to avoid cellphones whenever possible due to the security issues.
By comparison, numerous outlets have detailed Trump’s proclivity for tweeting from his iPhone, including everything from threatening foreign leaders with nuclear attacks to inciting supporters to engage in questionable behavior. The use of Twitter as a conduit for such messaging even led a departing employee of the service to disable the President’s account on his last day at the company. If the risk of a phone in his hands wasn’t great enough, the Times report went further, noting that Trump left one of the phones in a golf cart in New Jersey last year, “causing a scramble to locate it.”
Denials aside, eavesdropping has allegedly enabled Chinese spies to determine which friends and arguments have the most influence on Trump, and target pro-China friends to moderate his positions. The report says Russia’s campaign hasn’t been as sophisticated as China’s “because of Mr. Trump’s apparent affinity” for Putin.
In a barbed response to the story, a Chinese government spokesperson suggested that Trump give up his iPhones in favor of Huawei devices — products U.S. officials have been working to ban in multiple countries over spying concerns — or stop communicating altogether. Like Trump, China’s spokesperson described the spying report as “fake news.”