The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s communication hubris, and its repeated potential threats to national security

President Trump announces a plan to overhaul how Medicare pays for certain drugs on Thursday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Trump in 2016 went so far as to say that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, should go to jail for her private email server. The reason? She had created a grave national security threat by allowing countries like China to possibly hack the server and gain access to sensitive information. He baselessly alleged that China had, in fact, done so and said it was “putting all of America and our citizens in danger — great danger.” He wrote on Facebook: “Clinton’s home email server that she lied to the American people about was a profound national security risk.”

Yet now that he’s president, Trump has repeatedly been reported to be quite cavalier about and insecure with his own communications. And he’s done it despite rather clear indications that exactly what he warned about with Clinton could be happening now: hostile foreign countries gleaning key information.

The most recent example comes from the New York Times, which reported this week that Trump continues to mostly use his cellphone against the advice of security experts. What’s so stunning about the new report is that he has done it despite the fact that he has been warned China and Russia are, in fact, listening in — almost the exact same threat Trump warned was so grave when it came to Clinton’s emails.

Although Trump’s claim that China had hacked Clinton’s emails was reportedly unfounded, officials now say China and Russia are, in fact, listening in on his phone calls:

When President Trump calls old friends on one of his iPhones to gossip, gripe or solicit their latest take on how he is doing, American intelligence reports indicate that Chinese spies are often listening — and putting to use invaluable insights into how to best work the president and affect administration policy, current and former American officials said.
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.

Trump has denied the report repeatedly, saying he rarely uses his cellphone. The Times is standing by its story. As with any anonymously sourced report about what’s happening behind the scenes in the Trump White House, it’s a matter of whom you trust.

But Trump’s track record lends strong credence to the story. This is hardly the first suggestion that his attacks on Clinton’s information security weren’t a particularly principled stand. Nor is it the first time Trump has created apparent information-security risks specifically when it comes to countries like China and Russia.

There was the time that he blurted out highly classified information about a key ally in the fight against the Islamic State during an Oval Office meeting with Russian leaders — a disclosure that officials worried could jeopardize the source and the intelligence capability used. Russia, after all, is not exactly a firm ally in the region, having long sided with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

There was the time Trump strategized about a North Korean missile launch with Japanese President Shinzo Abe out in the open at Mar-a-Lago.

There was the time the Trump White House was warned that Michael Flynn could be compromised by the Russians because he had lied about communications with its ambassador, and the White House still kept him on for more than two weeks.

There was the time Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin — a trained former KGB agent — privately for two hours with no other U.S. officials in the room. We still have no idea what was said.

And this isn’t even the first time Trump has reportedly been loose with his phone security. Reporting on this dates from last year. Politico, similar to the Times this week, reported that Trump had eschewed the Obama administration’s protocols on cellphone use:

President Donald Trump uses a White House cellphone that isn’t equipped with sophisticated security features designed to shield his communications, according to two senior administration officials — a departure from the practice of his predecessors that potentially exposes him to hacking or surveillance.
The president, who relies on cellphones to reach his friends and millions of Twitter followers, has rebuffed staff efforts to strengthen security around his phone use, according to the administration officials.

It’s possible Trump is careful with what he says on his cellphone, when he uses it, and that he makes sure to use a hard line when discussing sensitive matters. But just about everything about him and his history suggests a certain hubris. Intelligence is an art form, and it’s not just about getting classified information (though Trump has apparently been careless with that, too); it’s also about learning how to influence your competitors and adversaries. Even if Trump didn’t share anything sensitive with Putin in their meeting, for example, Putin could ostensibly have gained insights on how to manipulate Trump. We’re rather unnecessarily being asked to just trust that Trump, a diplomatic amateur, knows what he’s doing when the Chinese and the Russians are listening.

Trump’s actions on this front have repeatedly revealed a “Do as I say, not as I do” attitude. And at the very least, you’d expect someone who was so gravely worried about Clinton’s emails to take every precaution to avoid such things.