President Donald Trump flatly denied on Thursday that he talks with old friends on personal mobile devices that are vulnerable to foreign spies, insisting on social media that he hardly ever uses cellphones.
The pair of tweets were sent via Twitter on an iPhone, according to metadata carried with the messages.
A New York Times report concluded that Chinese and Russians are listening in, based on complaints from current and former U.S. intelligence officials who say the president has been repeatedly warned about his digital security but refuses to give up his old iPhones.
Trump called it fake news, tweeting: ‘The so-called experts on Trump over at the New York Times wrote a long and boring article on my cellphone usage that is so incorrect I do not have time here to correct it.’
‘I only use Government Phones, and have only one seldom used government cell phone. Story is soooo wrong!’
The president tweeted a few hours later that ‘I rarely use a cellphone, & when I do it’s government authorized. I like Hard Lines. Just more made up Fake News!’
The Times reported that spies in China have compiled a list of Trump’s non-governmental friends and associates who turn up on the other end of his phone calls, and aim to use them to silently nudge the White House toward Beijing-friendly policies.
The paper also reported that Trump has two iPhones with National Security Agency upgrades, along with a third iPhone that he keeps for personal use, and only this last device allows him to store his personal contacts.
That runs counter to the president’s claim Thursday that he only has a single ‘seldom used government cell phone.’
In May Politico reported that the president went months without his mobile devices undergoing security checks. Many of his tweets are sent from iPhones.
‘The White House is confident in the security protocols in place for the President’s use of communications devices,’ a senior White House official told ABC News at the time.
‘The president has accepted every device and process related to mobile phones recommended by White House Information Technology,’ the official said, adding that ‘[d]ue to inherent capabilities and advancement in technologies, these devices are more secure than any Obama era devices.’
White House officials say they are hoping that Trump doesn’t divulge any sensitive secrets to the friends with whom he speaks.
They say they learned from sources inside foreign governments, and through intercepted communications between foreign officials, that Trump’s phone calls were being tapped.
The Chinese are reportedly focused on Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO of the private equity giant Blackstone Group; and former casino mogul Steve Wynn.
Schwarzman has endowed a master’s degree program at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Wynn’s ties to China include a property he once owned in Macau.
A spokesperson for Wynn declined comment.
A representative for Schwarzman said the Blackstone CEO ‘has been happy to serve as an intermediary on certain critical matters between the two countries at the request of both heads of state.’
For decades, China has tried to influence the American president by nurturing contacts with business people and academics who had known ties to the White House.
Listening in on Trump’s calls allows the Chinese to go directly to the president’s closest associates while also bearing in mind which arguments tend to have the greatest impact on his thinking.
China has focused particularly attention on Schwarzman, according to the Times, because he is known to hold views that are sympathetic toward trade with Beijing.
The Chinese have reportedly been keen on getting members of Trump’s inner circle to persuade the president to sit down more often with Premier Xi Jinping.
Officials in Beijing believe that Trump can be more easily swayed in a face-to-face setting, where interpersonal relationships are a bigger factor in diplomacy.
Trump is less likely to make decisions friendlier to China if the issue was left up to other negotiators, Chinese government officials are said to believe.
Trump has spoken warmly of Xi, though this has not stopped him from escalating his trade dispute with the Asian power.
The Trump administration slapped tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods last month and is threatening to impose duties on virtually all of the goods China exports to the United States.
Trump has said signs of economic weakness in China and its slumping stock markets are proof of the effect U.S. tariffs are having on the Chinese economy.
Still, Beijing has remained defiant, vowing to stimulate domestic demand to cushion the blow from any trade shocks.
While China has been actively engaged in electronic espionage against Trump, the Russians are not believed to be as keen on getting the president’s ear.
That’s because of Trump’s past statements in which he has expressed admiration for President Vladimir Putin.
Trump’s ‘casual’ approach toward his phone’s security is ironic given that he and his supporters demanded that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton be prosecuted for maintaining a private email server which she used to conduct official government business.