WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence reports indicate that when President Donald Trump calls old friends on one of his iPhones, 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 U.S. officials said.
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 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's use of his iPhones was detailed by several current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could discuss classified intelligence and sensitive security arrangements. The officials said they were doing so not to undermine Trump, but out of frustration with what they considered the president's casual approach to electronic security.
From sources inside foreign governments and from intercepting communications between foreign officials, U.S. spy agencies learned that China and Russia were eavesdropping on the president's cellphone calls, the officials said.
The officials said they have also determined that China is seeking to use what it is learning from the calls -- how Trump thinks, what arguments tend to sway him and to whom he is inclined to listen -- to keep a trade war with the United States from escalating further. In what amounts to a marriage of lobbying and espionage, the Chinese have pieced together a list of the people with whom Trump regularly speaks in hopes of using them to influence the president, the officials said.
Among those on the list are Stephen 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.
Russia is not believed to be running as sophisticated an influence effort as China because of Trump's apparent affinity for President Vladimir Putin, a former official said.
China's effort is a 21st-century version of what officials there have been doing for many decades: trying to influence American leaders by cultivating an informal network of prominent businessmen and academics who can be sold on ideas and policy prescriptions and then carry them to the White House. The difference now is that China, through its eavesdropping on Trump's calls, has a far clearer idea of who carries the most influence with the president, as well as what arguments tend to work.
Trump friends like Schwarzman -- who figured prominently in the first meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Trump at Mar-a-Lago, the president's Florida resort -- already hold pro-China and pro-trade views and thus are ideal targets in the eyes of the Chinese, the officials said.
Officials said the president has two official iPhones that have been altered by the National Security Agency to limit their capabilities -- and vulnerabilities -- and a third, personal phone that is no different from hundreds of millions of iPhones in use around the world. Trump keeps the personal phone, White House officials said, because unlike his other two phones, he can store his contacts in it.
Apple declined to comment on the president's iPhones. None of them are completely secure and are vulnerable to hackers who could remotely break into the phones themselves.
Foreign governments are well aware of the risk, and leaders like Xi and Putin avoid using cellphones when possible.
President Barack Obama was careful with cellphones, too. He used an iPhone in his second term, but it could not make calls and could receive email only from a special address that was given to a select group of staff members and intimates. It had no camera or microphone and could not be used to download apps at will. Texting was forbidden because there was no way to collect and store the messages, as is required by the Presidential Records Act.
A Section on 10/25/2018
Print Headline: Spies said to gain insight from Trump's iPhone use