Trump Ordered Officials to Give Jared Kushner a Security Clearance

President Trump ordered his chief of staff to grant his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, a top-secret security clearance last year, overruling concerns flagged by intelligence officials and the White House’s top lawyer, four people briefed on the matter said.

Mr. Trump’s decision in May so troubled senior administration officials that at least one, the White House chief of staff at the time, John F. Kelly, wrote a contemporaneous internal memo about how he had been “ordered” to give Mr. Kushner the top-secret clearance.

The White House counsel at the time, Donald F. McGahn II, also wrote an internal memo outlining the concerns that had been raised about Mr. Kushner — including by the C.I.A. — and how Mr. McGahn had recommended that he not be given a top-secret clearance.

The disclosure of the memos contradicts statements made by the president, who told The New York Times in January in an Oval Office interview that he had no role in his son-in-law receiving his clearance.

Mr. Kushner’s lawyer, Abbe D. Lowell, also said that at the time the clearance was granted last year that his client went through a standard process. Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter and Mr. Kushner’s wife, said the same thing three weeks ago.

Asked on Thursday about the memos contradicting the president’s account, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said, “We don’t comment on security clearances.”

Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Mr. Lowell, said on Thursday: “In 2018, White House and security clearance officials affirmed that Mr. Kushner’s security clearance was handled in the regular process with no pressure from anyone. That was conveyed to the media at the time, and new stories, if accurate, do not change what was affirmed at the time.”

The decision last year to grant Mr. Kushner a top-secret clearance upgraded him from earlier temporary and interim status. He never received a higher-level designation that would have given him access to need-to-know intelligence known as sensitive compartmented information.

It is not known precisely what factors led to the problems with Mr. Kushner’s security clearance. Officials had raised questions about his own and his family’s real estate business’s ties to foreign governments and investors, and about initially unreported contacts he had with foreigners. The issue also generated criticism of Mr. Trump for having two family members serve in official capacities in the West Wing.

Mr. Kushner has spent this week abroad working on a Middle East peace plan. Among his meetings was one with Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

While the president has the legal authority to grant a clearance, in most cases, the White House’s personnel security office makes a determination about whether to grant one after the F.B.I. has conducted a background check. If there is a dispute in the personnel security office about how to move forward — a rare occurrence — the White House counsel makes the decision. In highly unusual cases, the president weighs in and grants one himself.

In Mr. Kushner’s case, personnel division officials were divided about whether to grant him a top-secret clearance.

In May 2018, the White House Counsel’s Office, which at the time was led by Mr. McGahn, recommended to Mr. Trump that Mr. Kushner not be given a clearance at that level. But the next day, Mr. Trump ordered Mr. Kelly to grant it to Mr. Kushner anyway, the people familiar with the events said.

The question of Mr. Kushner’s access to intelligence was a flash point almost from the beginning of the administration. The initial background check into Mr. Kushner dragged on for more than a year, creating a distraction for the White House, which struggled to explain why one of the people closest to the president had yet to be given the proper approval to be trusted with the country’s most sensitive information.

The full scope of intelligence officials’ concerns about Mr. Kushner is not known. But the clearance had been held up in part over questions from the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. about his foreign and business contacts, including those related to Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, according to multiple people familiar with the events.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Kushner was part of a group that met with a Russian lawyer who went to Trump Tower claiming to have political “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And during the presidential transition, Mr. Kushner had a meeting with the Russian ambassador at the time, Sergey I. Kislyak, and the head of a Russian state-owned bank. When he applied for a security clearance, he did not reveal those meetings.

He later made several amendments to that section of his application, known as an SF86. His aides at the time insisted he had omitted those meetings inadvertently.

Mr. Kushner initially operated with a provisional clearance as his background check proceeded.

In an entry to Mr. Kushner’s personnel file on Sept. 15, 2017, the head of the personnel security division, Carl Kline, wrote, “Per conversation with WH Counsel the clearance was changed to interim Top Secret until we can confirm that the DOJ or someone else actually granted a final clearance. This action is out of an abundance of caution because the background investigation has not been completed.”

In a statement to The Times when Mr. Kushner received the clearance last year, Mr. Lowell said that “his application was properly submitted, reviewed by numerous career officials and underwent the normal process.”

During a review of security clearances in February 2018 that was prompted by the controversy surrounding Rob Porter, then the White House staff secretary, who had been accused of domestic abuse, Mr. Kushner’s clearance was downgraded from interim top secret to secret, limiting his access to classified information. At the time, Mr. Kelly wrote a five-page memo, revoking temporary clearances that had been in place since June 1, 2017.

That affected both Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump, who told friends and advisers that they believed that Mr. Kelly and Mr. McGahn were targeting them for petty reasons instead of legitimate concerns flagged by officials.

Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump both complained to the president about the situation, current and former administration officials said. In Mr. Kushner’s case, Mr. Trump would often turn to other aides and say in frustration, “Why isn’t this getting done?” according to a former administration official. On at least one occasion, the president asked another senior official if the person could sort out the issue. That official said no, according to this account.

Mr. Kelly did not believe it was appropriate to overrule the security clearance process and had brushed aside or avoided dealing with Mr. Kushner’s requests, a former administration official said. Mr. Kelly did not respond to a request for comment.

House Democrats are in the early stages of an investigation into how several Trump administration officials obtained clearances, including Mr. Kushner.

Mr. Trump’s precise language to Mr. Kelly about Mr. Kushner’s clearance in their direct conversation remains unclear. Two of the people familiar with Mr. Trump’s discussions with Mr. Kelly said that there might be different interpretations of what the president said. But Mr. Kelly believed it was an order, according to two people familiar with his thinking.

And Mr. Trump was definitive in his statements to The Times in the January interview.

“I was never involved with the security” clearances for Mr. Kushner, the president said. “I know that there was issues back and forth about security for numerous people, actually. But I don’t want to get involved in that stuff.”

A recent report by NBC revealed that Mr. Kline had overruled two career security specialists who had rejected Mr. Kushner’s application based on the F.B.I.’s concerns. A senior administration official confirmed the details laid out in the NBC report.

Mr. Kline was acting on the directive sent down by the president, one of the people familiar with the matter said.

The day that Mr. Lowell described Mr. Kushner’s process as having gone through normal routes, aides to Mr. Kushner had asked White House officials to deliver a statement from Mr. Kelly supporting what Mr. Lowell had said. But Mr. Kelly refused to do so, according to a person with knowledge of the events.

[The New York Times]

Donald Trump Twitter Account Video Reveals Covert U.S. Navy Seal Deployment During Iraq Visit

President Donald Trump and the White House communications team revealed that a U.S. Navy SEAL team was deployed to Iraq after the president secretly traveled to the region to meet with American forces serving in a combat zone for the first time since being elected to office.

While the commander-in-chief can declassify information, usually the specific special operations unit is not revealed to the American public, especially while U.S. service members are deployed. Official photographs and videos typically blur the individual faces of special operation forces, due to the sensitive nature of their job.

The president’s video posted Wednesday did not shield the faces of special operation forces. Current and former Defense Department officials told Newsweek that information concerning what units are deployed and where is almost always classified and is a violation of operational security.

Trump flew to Iraq late Christmas Day after facing a barrage of negative headlines over the holiday season amid a partial government shutdown. The president and first lady Melania Trump posed for pictures with U.S. service members at al-Asad air base in Iraq.

The clandestine trip came a week after Trump ordered the Pentagon to begin planning the withdraw of roughly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria and around 7,000 from Afghanistan over the next few months. The abrupt decision prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who disagreed with the drawdown.

A pool report during Trump’s visit said the details of the trip were embargoed until the president finished giving his remarks to a group of about 100 mostly U.S. special operation troops engaged in combat operations in Iraq and Syria.

[Newsweek]

Dow Jones plunges after Mnuchin comments; Trump doubles down on attacks on Fed

The Dow Jones Industrial Average continued plummeting Monday — in a history-making session — after U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin shocked investors worldwide over the weekend by tweeting that he had spoken unprompted to the CEOs of the six largest U.S. banks to ensure they were liquid. It was the worst Christmas Eve trading session in U.S. history, experts said.

The Dow ended the day a dramatic 653 points lower at 21,792 in an abbreviated trading session ahead of the Christmas holiday. That’s a decrease of 2.9 percent, adding to last week’s fall of 6.8 percent.

“I do believe this was the worst Dec.24 in history,” U.S. Global Investors head trader Michael Matousek told ABC News. “There hasn’t been a worse Christmas Eve since I started in the industry 22 years ago.”

Last week was the index’s worst in 10 years — since the 2008 financial crisis. This month is currently on track to end as the worst December since the Great Depression.

The tech-heavy NASDAQ was also crushed, ending the day more than 5 percent lower at 6,193. It crossed into bear territory last week for the first time since the 2008 recession, which means it is down more than 20 percent from its record high on Aug. 29.

Over the weekend, Mnuchin tweeted that he called the CEOs of J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo and Citigroup from his vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. His agency is one of the federal departments affected by the current government shutdown. Others at Treasury are forced to say home without pay. It is unclear whether Mnuchin traveled on a government plane to his vacation.

The bank executives assured the Secretary that “they have ample liquidity available for lending to consumer, business markets, and all other market operations,” Mnuchin wrote.

“They have not experienced any clearance or margin issues and that the markets continue to function properly,” he added.

Mnuchin’s comments seem to have been meant to assuage investors, economists and traders that there would not be a run on banks, which precipitated the last crisis.

However, the message may have had the opposite effect since it was not a concern of market watchers until his tweet.

“If this weren’t the end of December, I would have thought it was April Fools,” Jared Bernstein, former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, told The Washington Post. “The markets are already nervous enough. It’s like sending out a message saying our space shields can intercept incoming asteroids. Uh, I didn’t know there were any coming our way.”

Market watchers who were generally upbeat about the economy expressed concern over the panic that Mnuchin’s comments, coupled with the overall instability at the White House, could inflame.

“My guess is the Mnuchin was under pressure from Trump to ‘do something’ and this half-baked attempt to calm markets is the result,” Timothy Duy, economics professor at The University of Oregon and author of the influential Fed Watch blog, wrote to ABC News in an email.

“Mnuchin apparently thought (this is speculation of course) that easing fears of a financial crisis could help the stock market. But that is not a serious fear at this point,” Duy said, adding that traders are spooked by the trade wars, policy uncertainty and an economy that is slowing as many experts expected.

“Mnuchin raised a fear that really isn’t a current issue, and by doing so creates the perception that he knows of a problem that no one else knows about,” Duy added. “That kind of thing can precipitate a financial crisis because, fearing the unknown, market participants stop buying anything and financial institutions stop lending to each other.”

Many experts noted that the panic caused by the Treasury Secretary’s comments may cause a run on banks, which were a large factor in the Great Depression. It is widely believed, however, the banks are fine.

“A run on the banks is when people are afraid money won’t be liquid, so they start withdrawing money, like Lehman Brothers, so they had to go to the Fed for extra cash, which is essentially a bailout,” Matousek said.

“There’s a difference between now and then because we didn’t have stress testing like we do now,” Matousek added. “We have so much stress testing, they’re so regulated, when I saw he was calling the banks, that just tells me the administration is a little unsure of what’s going on.”

Duy added that even though Mnuchin’s comments were highly unusual, “it is widely believed that Mnuchin’s actions were so poorly conceived that they can’t be taken seriously. But they were so poorly conceived that they imply a worrisome lack of competence for economic policymaking as a whole, and that creates uncertainty that undermines investor confidence.”

[ABC News]

Trump Orders Big Troop Reduction in Afghanistan

A day after a contested decision to pull American military forces from Syria, officials said Thursday that President Trump has ordered the start of a reduction of American forces in Afghanistan.

More than 7,000 American troops will begin to return home from Afghanistan in the coming weeks, a U.S. official said. The move will come as the first stage of a phased drawdown and the start of a conclusion to the 17-year war that officials say could take at least many months. There now are more than 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Mr. Trump announced Wednesday that he would pull all of the more than 2,000 American troops from Syria.

Taken together, the Syria withdrawal and the likely Afghan drawdown represent a dramatic shift in the U.S. approach to military engagement in hot spots around the world, reflecting Mr. Trump’s aversion to long-running military entanglements with their high costs and American casualties.

“I think it shows how serious the president is about wanting to come out of conflicts,” a senior U.S. official said of how the Syria decision affects his thinking on Afghanistan. “I think he wants to see viable options about how to bring conflicts to a close.”

The shifts may have proven too drastic for some in the administration. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis submitted a letter expressing his intent to leave, saying, “you have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”

Mr. Mattis’s unexpected departure raises questions about whether Mr. Trump’s plans will proceed as he directed.

The plans for troop withdrawals also reflect Mr. Trump’s campaign promises and his “America First” approach to overseas involvements. In a Twitter message on Thursday, he wrote, “Time to come home & rebuild.”

In both the Afghan and Syrian conflicts, Mr. Trump earlier this year voiced an interest in bringing troops home within the year or less, moves that were widely opposed within the U.S. national security establishment.

But Mr. Trump’s impatience has deepened, and in recent days, the debate has grown more pointed, according to those familiar with the discussions. The Pentagon over the last weekend fended off a push by Mr. Trump to start bringing troops home from Afghanistan starting in January, officials said.

Mr. Trump’s decision on Syria, like earlier foreign-policy decisions including his decision to leave the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, was made without a formal consultative process within his cabinet, officials and lawmakers said, cementing his inclination to make key national security decisions on his own or in small groups that include national security adviser John Bolton and a few others. He also apprised few international leaders of his intentions.

The Pentagon and U.S. Central Command declined to comment on the Afghanistan plans. The move to reduce U.S. military involvement in the Middle East and Africa comes alongside a new national security strategy that designates geopolitical competitors such as Russia and China greater threats than terrorists or failed states.

Mr. Trump’s decision on Syria was widely criticized by Democrats and Republican alike in Congress and national security experts across the government, an outcome that also is likely to greet his decision on Afghanistan.

[Wall Stree Journal]

A Trump Call That Went Rogue Hands Erdogan a Surprise Win on Syria

Donald Trump was supposed to tell his Turkish counterpart to stop testing his patience with military threats in Syria. That is, if the American president stuck to the script.

Instead, during a lengthy phone call earlier this month, Trump shocked even those in his inner circle by yielding to a suggestion from Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reverse the Pentagon’s Syrian strategy, handing the Turkish president his biggest diplomatic victory ever.

Erdogan pressed Trump on the Dec. 14 call to explain why American forces were still in Syria even after they met their objective of defeating Islamic State, according to people with direct knowledge of the conversation.

Erdogan had a point about the defeat of ISIS, Trump said, repeating his long-held conviction that American troops should be out of Syria anyway, according to the people, including an American official who spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing the call.

Then the American president dropped a bombshell, asking National Security Adviser John Bolton — whom he addressed as “Johnny” — about the feasibility of an immediate pullout, according to two of the people. He got a reassuring “yes” in response and the ball started rolling, the people said.

Days later, Trump announced the pullout of all 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, facing withering criticism from both sides of the political spectrum for leaving a key part of the Middle East exposed to Russian and Iranian influence. Then on Thursday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned.

While Trump faced political heat, Erdogan became a hero at home, seen as a leader who got his way with the world’s biggest superpower by convincing Washington to end its support for Turkey’s nemesis in Syria, a Kurdish militant group called the YPG. Erdogan says the group — which has allied with America for some of the toughest fighting in northern Syria — is linked to domestic terrorists he has long sought to wipe out.

The developments illustrate how Erdogan has managed to become a more central player in both Mideast politics and U.S. foreign policy, capitalizing on an American president eager to fulfill promises to extricate American troops from Middle East quagmires. They come just months after Trump and Erdogan were facing off over new American tariffs, Turkey’s refusal to release an American pastor and Erdogan’s demands that the U.S. extradite a cleric it views as behind a failed 2016 coup.

[Bloomberg]

Stock markets plunge after Trump’s ‘Tariff Man’ tweet

Stocks took a nosedive on Wall Street as investors worried that a US-China trade truce reached over the weekend wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average sank almost 800 points Tuesday.

Boeing and Caterpillar, two major exporters which would have much to lose if trade tensions don’t ease, weighed the most on the Dow.

Bond prices soared sharply, sending yields lower, as traders shoved money into lower-risk investments.

The sharp drop in yields hurt banks because it makes it harder to earn money from lending. JPMorgan Chase sank 4.5 percent.

The S&P 500 lost 90 points, or 3.2 percent, to 2,700.

The Dow dropped 799 points, or 3.1 percent, to 25,027. The Nasdaq fell 283 points, or 3.8 percent, to 7,158.

The markets plunged after President Donald Trump unleashed a threatening tweet Tuesday morning.

“President Xi and I want this deal to happen, and it probably will. But if not remember, I am a Tariff Man,” Trump tweeted.

[New York Post]

White House Blocks CIA Director From Briefing Senate on Khashoggi Murder

President Donald Trump‘s White House will prevent CIA director Gina Haspel or any other intelligence official from briefing the Senate on conclusions reached by the U.S. government regarding the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a new report by The Guardian.

Khashoggi disappeared and was brutally murdered nearly two months ago after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Senators expected to hear on Wednesday from Haspel, who traveled to Istanbul during the investigation, reportedly heard audio tapes of Khashoggi’s murder and briefed Trump upon her return one month ago.

Instead, they will be briefed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis.

“On a national security issue of such importance, it would be customary for a senior intelligence official to take part,” Guardian reporter Julian Borger wrote. “Officials made it clear that the decision for Haspel not to appear in front of the committee came from the White House.”

A Senate staffer told Borger, “there is always an intel person there for a briefing like this” and that “it is totally unprecedented and should be interpreted as nothing less than the Trump administration trying to silence the intelligence community.”

The CIA has reportedly concluded with high level of confidence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of the dissident journalist.

President Trump, however, has been increasingly reluctant to accept the verdict of his own intelligence community.

“They didn’t conclude,” Trump insisted last week during a pool spray at Mar-a-Lago. “No no, they didn’t conclude. I’m sorry. No they didn’t conclude. They did not come to a conclusion. They have feelings certain ways… I don’t know if anyone’s going to be able to conclude the crown prince did it.”

[Mediaite]

Trump on toning down his rhetoric: ‘You should go about your life’

President Trump on Monday said “you should go about your life” when asked whether he would tone down his rhetoric in the wake of a violent week that included pipe bombs mailed to Democrats and a mass shooting at a synagogue.

Trump sat down with Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Monday and said he didn’t want to make the suspects behind the violence “too important” by cancelling events.

The president was criticized for going to a scheduled campaign rally in Illinois hours after 11 people were killed when a gunman opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

“Once you start doing that, once you cancel — so you’re doing a rally and rallies are meant to be fun,” Trump told Ingraham on Monday. “Rallies are meant to be everything and I said, ‘Tone it down,’ and then you saw the group saying, ‘No, don’t tone it down, don’t tone it down.’”

Trump at the rally in Illinois told the crowd: “If you don’t mind, I’m going to tone it down, just a little bit. Is that okay?”

After the crowd responded with a ‘No,” he said, “I had a feeling you might say that.”

“So we had a great rally in Illinois, for some great people and frankly, I think that’s probably the way it should be,” Trump told Ingraham.

The president has rejected calls to temper his political rhetoric in the aftermath of the nationwide bomb scare involving many prominent Democrats. The figures targeted with mailed bombs were all critics of Trump who has has criticized in return.

“I think I’ve been toned down, if you want to know the truth,” Trump told reporters on Friday.

“I could really tone it up because, as you know, the media’s been extremely unfair to me and to the Republican Party,” Trump said.

His comments came after the arrest of Cesar Sayoc Jr., a reported Trump fan who was charged with five federal crimes for allegedly mailing explosive devices to more than a dozen Democrats, celebrities and news organizations.

[The Hill]

When Trump Phones Friends, the Chinese Listen and Learn

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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Trump, but out of frustration with what they considered the president’s casual approach to electronic security.

American spy agencies, the officials said, had learned that China and Russia were eavesdropping on the president’s cellphone calls from human sources inside foreign governments and intercepting communications between foreign officials.

The officials said they have also determined that China is seeking to use what it is learning from the calls — how Mr. 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 Mr. Trump regularly speaks in hopes of using them to influence the president, the officials said.

Among those on the list are 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.

The Chinese have identified friends of both men and others among the president’s regulars, and are now relying on Chinese businessmen and others with ties to Beijing to feed arguments to the friends of the Trump friends. The strategy is that those people will pass on what they are hearing, and that Beijing’s views will eventually be delivered to the president by trusted voices, the officials said. They added that the Trump friends were most likely unaware of any Chinese effort.

L. Lin Wood, a lawyer for Mr. Wynn, said his client was retired and had no comment. A spokeswoman for Blackstone, Christine Anderson, declined to comment on Chinese efforts to influence Mr. Schwarzman but said that he “has been happy to serve as an intermediary on certain critical matters between the two countries at the request of both heads of state.”

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.

China’s effort is a 21st-century version of what officials there have been doing for many decades, which is trying to influence American leaders by cultivating an informal network of prominent businesspeople 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 Mr. Trump’s calls, has a far clearer idea of who carries the most influence with the president, and what arguments tend to work.

The Chinese and the Russians “would look for any little thing — how easily was he talked out of something, what was the argument that was used,” said John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency who served in Moscow in the 1990s and later ran the agency’s Russia program.

Trump friends like Mr. Schwarzman, who figured prominently in the first meeting between President Xi Jinping of China and Mr. 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. Targeting the friends of Mr. Schwarzman and Mr. Wynn can reinforce the views of the two, the officials said. The friends are also most likely to be more accessible.

One official said the Chinese were pushing for the friends to persuade Mr. Trump to sit down with Mr. Xi as often as possible. The Chinese, the official said, correctly perceive that Mr. Trump places tremendous value on personal relationships, and that one-on-one meetings yield breakthroughs far more often than regular contacts between Chinese and American officials.

Whether the friends can stop Mr. Trump from pursuing a trade war with China is another question.

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. Mr. 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.

But the calls made from the phones are intercepted as they travel through the cell towers, cables and switches that make up national and international cellphone networks. Calls made from any cellphone — iPhone, Android, an old-school Samsung flip phone — are vulnerable.

The issue of secure communications is fraught for Mr. Trump. As a presidential candidate, he regularly attacked his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, during the 2016 campaign for her use of an unsecured email server while she was secretary state, and he basked in chants of “lock her up” at his rallies.

Intercepting calls is a relatively easy skill for governments. American intelligence agencies consider it an essential tool of spycraft, and they routinely try to tap the phones of important foreign leaders. In a diplomatic blowup during the Obama administration, documents leaked by Edward J. Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, showed that the American government had tapped the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

Foreign governments are well aware of the risk, and so leaders like Mr. Xi and Mr. 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 required by the Presidential Records Act.

“It is a great phone, state of the art, but it doesn’t take pictures, you can’t text. The phone doesn’t work, you know, you can’t play your music on it,” Mr. Obama said on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” in June 2016. “So basically, it’s like — does your 3-year-old have one of those play phones?”

When Mr. Obama needed a cellphone, the officials said, he used one of those of his aides.
Mr. Trump has insisted on more capable devices, although he did agree during the transition to give up his Android phone (the Google operating system is considered more vulnerable than Apple’s). And since becoming president, Mr. Trump has agreed to a slightly cumbersome arrangement of having two official phones: one for Twitter and other apps, and one for calls.

Mr. 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. 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.

Administration officials said Mr. Trump’s longtime paranoia about surveillance — well before coming to the White House he believed his phone conversations were often being recorded — gave them some comfort that he was not disclosing classified information on the calls.

They 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.

In an interview this week with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Trump quipped about his phones being insecure. When asked what American officials in Turkey had learned about the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he replied, “I actually said don’t give it to me on the phone. I don’t want it on the phone. As good as these phones are supposed to be.”

But Mr. Trump is also famously indiscreet. In a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office with Russian officials, he shared highly sensitive intelligence passed to the United States by Israel. He also told the Russians that James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, was “a real nut job” and that firing him had relieved “great pressure.”

Still, Mr. Trump’s lack of tech savvy has alleviated some other security concerns. He does not use email, so the risk of a phishing attack like those used by Russian intelligence to gain access to Democratic Party emails is close to nil. The same goes for texts, which are disabled on his official phones.

His Twitter phone can connect to the internet only over a Wi-Fi connection, and he rarely, if ever, has access to unsecured wireless networks, officials said. But the security of the device ultimately depends on the user, and protecting the president’s phones has sometimes proved difficult.

Last year, Mr. Trump’s cellphone was left behind in a golf cart at his club in Bedminster, N.J., causing a scramble to locate it, according to two people familiar with what took place.

Mr. Trump is supposed to swap out his two official phones every 30 days for new ones but rarely does, bristling at the inconvenience. White House staff members are supposed to set up the new phones exactly like the old ones, but the new iPhones cannot be restored from backups of his old phones, because doing so would transfer over any malware.

New phone or old, though, the Chinese and the Russians are listening, and learning.

[The New York Times]

Trump Tweets Out Outdated Death Count for Hurricane Florence

On Saturday, President Donald Trump tweeted out his “deepest sympathies” to the families and friends of those who have lost loved ones in Hurricane Florence.

“Five deaths have been recorded thus far with regard to Hurricane Florence! Deepest sympathies and warmth go out to the families and friends of the victims. May God be with them!” Trump wrote.

The death toll in Florence is actually, and sadly, up to at least 11 (some reports have it at 12) on Saturday after being reported as 5 on Friday.

As per Fox News:

The death toll attributed to Florence stands at 11, including 10 in North Carolina and one in South Carolina. Authorities say some other fatalities were unrelated.

Trump’s misreporting of the death toll comes on the heels of his repeated denial that 3000 people died in Puerto Rico following the devastating hurricanes on the island.

[Mediaite]

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