“Russia, if you are listening . . . ” (A common sense explanation for Trump's cell phone usage)

Donald Trump

Another thought before Trump’s presidency (hopefully) slips into distant memory.  One of the many truly odd things about Trump’s presidency was that he insisted on, and got away with, using his personal cell phone all the time — which is an absolute security nightmare because it is unsecured and is listened to by who knows how many countries’ intelligence services.  (Think of the many months Obama had to fight to keep a Blackberry, and all the limitations placed on it.) 

News reporting was always to the effect that Trump “inexplicably” was regularly talking on a cell phone that he knew the Russians (and Chinese, and . . .)  were actively surveilling.  Uniformly, the press reported, and WH insiders characterized, this as a matter of Trump’s negligence, malpractice or rascally stubbornness.

Inexplicable? Negligence?  Stubbornness?  I always thought back to the press conference in July 2016 when then candidate Trump uttered the memorable words:

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

As the NYT and others reported, “that same day, the Russians — whether they had tuned in or not — made their first effort to break into the servers used by Mrs. Clinton’s personal office, according to a sweeping 29-page indictment unsealed Friday by the special counsel’s office that charged 12 Russian with election hacking. “ 

Thinking of this episode . . . “Russia, if you are listening” . . .  made me realize that Trump insisted on using his unsecured cell phone precisely because it was a method of communicating to the Russians.  Not that he was using it to call Russian agents, but that he knew the Russians were listening and so he could communicate to them through his third party conversations.  

Keep in mind the long history of Trump’s attempted surreptitious communications with Russia.  His national security advisor pled guilty to lying about private calls with Russian contacts.  Wildly — his son-in-law Jared actually asked the Russians to set up a phone line that was secured against U.S. monitoring.  Trump’s campaign representatives flew to the remote island of Seychelles to “randomly bump into” Russian agents for a discussion.  Trump himself  met with Putin, repeatedly, without other staff or translators, and when a US translator was there for one meeting, Trump famously seized the translator’s notes and ordered him to stay quiet.

Trump wasn’t negligent; we were.  At its most benign, there was always a certain level of mainstream naïveté when it came to Trump’s threat.  Consider the above and let’s get real:  

An oddball president with a history of attempting secret communications with Russia insisted on using a cell phone that he knew the Russians were constantly monitoring?  And we characterized that as sloppy, not intentional?  

God knows what future historians are going to find.  

  • January 29, 2021