By the time you read this, conservative politicians and talking heads will have their spin for Wednesday evening’s New York Times bombshell: China and Russia are spying on (some of) President Trump’s phone calls. The excuses will span widely: “The leaks are the real problem,” “Focus on China” and, of course, the president’s favorite: “Fake news!” One excuse you won’t hear Trumpites put their name to? That the president is too ill-informed to spill many secrets. But — bizarrely — it’s probably true, the White House knows it, and it should scare us.
We’ve known for months that the president was using an unsecured iPhone. The natural assumption was that other countries’ intelligence agencies were listening. Yet it is still bracing to see that assumption confirmed, because of the flood of secrets that a president’s unsecured phone calls should expose.
Certainly China had grand plans for this unprecedented access to a U.S. president. There’s the obvious basic step: learning “how Mr. Trump thinks, what arguments tend to sway him and to whom he is inclined to listen,” as the Times reported. Beyond that, China has built a list of frequent Trump talkers and are trying to feed Chinese leaders’ views through these “trusted voices.” The goal: to entice the president into more one-on-one meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Beijing, like everybody else, knows how easily Trump is swayed by personal relationships, especially friendship and flattery. (A few stays at his hotels can’t hurt either.) Indeed, the Times reports that Russia has invested less in tapping Trump precisely because Trump already likes Vladimir Putin.
Yet this incredible intelligence resource has gotten Beijing nowhere. Chinese leaders, according to a new Post report, remain befuddled by this White House. They thought they had a trade deal last year; Trump vetoed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s agreement. This May, they made another deal with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, only for Trump to nix it on Twitter. September brought the same, but faster: “As China prepared to dispatch a top official to discuss possible concessions, the president preempted the trip with new tariffs.”
“We don’t know if they’re uncoordinated,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi vented privately, “or if they’re negotiating in bad faith.” There is little doubt that Trump hasn’t talked about China on his personal calls, and yet Beijing has no idea what’s going through his mind. If they’re literally listening to the president, and they still can’t figure out his plan, perhaps it’s because the president doesn’t have a plan. Perhaps there really is little for him to spill.
Those around Trump know how little he knows. In the Times’s story, anonymous White House officials told the reporters that “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.”
With any other president, that excuse would be ridiculous. With Trump, it’s Occam’s razor — the most straightforward explanation is probably the best one.
This is not to suggest taking comfort in the president’s ignorance. The Post reports that, because of the Trump White House’s confused messages, “many Chinese officials are pessimistic about repairing the [U.S.-China] relationship.” What happens next time Trump’s team asks China to help pressure North Korea? What about other allies being driven away by a Trump doctrine that changes according to whatever cable show the president is watching? And at home, what happens, for example, if the economy takes a turn for the worse?
A president without a plan is a president endangering the country.