the national interest

White House Sources: Chinese Surveilling Trump, But He’s Too Dumb to Know Any Secrets

China is spying on Trump’s cell phone calls. Fortunately, you can’t steal from an empty vault. Photo: Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump was elected president primarily on the issue of executive branch information security. Because his opponent really did flout official email protocol as secretary of State, this was one of the few issues available to him that could gain any traction in the mainstream media. The absurdity was the scale of the attention in proportion to the gravity of the offense. Mainstream media covered the email story like Watergate. Conservatives claimed it was disqualifying. Paul Ryan loudly tried to deny Clinton access to classified information before the election. The emails became the basis for the “Lock her up!” chant that Trump partisans continue to perform. Just the other week, a generally anti-Trump conservative writer named David French insisted that Clinton’s lax handling of email plausibly merited prison:

The New York Times report that Trump is disregarding protocol and making frequent calls on cell phones, which have been intercepted by foreign hackers, should obviously dismay the information security fanatics that rallied to his cause.

The Times’ story is filled with the kind of mordant, understated humor that tends to characterize the White House beat in an era when the president’s abnormalities are piled one atop another. Trump “typically relies on his mobile phones when he does not want a call going through the White House switchboard and logged for senior aides to see, his aides said,” the Times reports. “Many of those Mr. Trump speaks with most often on one of his cellphones, such as hosts at Fox News, share the president’s political views, or simply enable his sense of grievance about any number of subjects.”

To unpack this a bit: When he is not binge-watching Fox News, a large part of Trump’s discretionary time is spent calling up Fox News personalities to get thoughts they didn’t express on the air. Trump’s staff tries to discourage this habit, in part because many of the Fox News personalities are insane, and their insanity creates problems when Trump uses it to override his staff’s advice or demand a course of action premised upon delusional interpretations of reality. So the reason Trump is exposing his conversations to foreign hackers is that he is sneaking around his own aides (who he could just fire, and replace with aides who would let him talk to Fox News lunatics however much he wants, but for some reason has failed to do so.)

The good news, as it were, is that aides think — or at least hope — that Trump is not giving away much of value with these calls, because he doesn’t know much of value. Administration officials “said 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.” Also, Trump is apparently too compromised by Russia to be worth spying on by Moscow: “Russia is not believed to be running as sophisticated an influence effort as China because of Mr. Trump’s apparent affinity for President Vladimir V. Putin, a former official said.”

Given that he is being secretly surveilled by China, it’s probably good that Trump is too ignorant and lazy to have anything of value to disclose. But the overall situation is quite suboptimal.

There is so much gross misconduct in this administration, it’s not clear Democrats will even bother holding hearings on this issue if they gain control of Congress. That is itself telling: Trump has clearly exceeded his opponent’s culpability on her worst scandal, and it’s probably not even one of the 100 worst things he’s done, so far.

White House: Trump Too Ignorant to Give Secrets to China