President Trump, like previous American presidents, uses multiple phones for security reasons: these include a secure landline in the Oval Office, and mobile phones that are severely restricted in their functionality and replaced regularly to reduce security risks. But mobile cell networks are still a relative piece of cake for professional spy agencies to hack into, so aides advise presidents to avoid using cell phones whenever possible.
Trump has a particular penchant for using the less secure mobile options, including, of course, an iPhone for Twitter, and another iPhone to chat with his friends at Fox News and other old friends and business partners. According to the New York Times (porous paywall), China has been closely listening in on these casual calls with Trump’s network of friends, and studying how to influence him.
The Times says that two contacts of Trump of interest to Beijing have been “Stephen A. Schwarzman, the Blackstone Group chief executive who has endowed a master’s program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Steve Wynn, the former Las Vegas casino magnate who used to own a lucrative property in Macau.” They are among the figures that Beijing has sought to learn from what kinds of arguments persuade President Trump, and who in turn, Beijing has tried to use to deliver arguments to Trump from trusted sources.
This espionage and influence strategy may have paid dividends early in Trump’s presidency — see our report at his term’s 100 day mark, which asked “Did China tame Trump?” — but is probably less useful now, as evidenced by the widening chasm of trust between Washington and Beijing.
Unsurprisingly, both Trump and the Chinese government have denied the allegations. Trump called the story “soooo wrong” on Twitter, while the Chinese foreign ministry had a far more interesting reaction:
- The story is a candidate for “Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay,” the foreign ministry joked, before affixing it with the label “fake news.”
- Perhaps use a China-made Huawei phone, if iPhones are of such concern, the kidding continued.
- Or if all else fails, just “stop using all modern communications devices and cut themselves off from the outside world.”