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Why Trump's insistence on using unsecured phones is such a disaster

Among other things, the revelations drive a dagger through the heart of Republican hysteria over Hillary Clinton's emails.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C.

In the early days of Donald Trump's presidency, there were a variety of reports that the Republican was making use of an unsecured phone, to the frustration of White House officials. I'd assumed the issue would be addressed soon after. It wasn't.

In May 2018, roughly 14 months into Trump's term, Politico  reported that the president was still "rebuffing" efforts to secure his communications. The article added that while Barack Obama turned over his devices every 30 days for a security review, the current president believed that would be "too inconvenient."

Last night, as Rachel noted on the show, the New York Times took the story to a new level.

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.

Let's count the ways in which this is a disaster for the president. First, it offers proof of Trump putting sensitive information at risk, not accidentally, but as a result of neglect and laziness. On any given day, the president of the United States knowingly picks up unsecured mobile devices, has private conversations, and remains indifferent to the fact that foreign spies may be listening and recording everything that's said.

Second, according to the Times' reporting, officials in China are using what they're learning from their surveillance in order to more effectively manipulate the Republican administration to Beijing's advantage.

Third, Trump administration officials presented their silver lining to this story in a way that makes the president look even more ridiculous.

"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," the Times  reported.

In other words, U.S. officials take some solace in the fact that Trump is so ignorant, he probably doesn't know important secrets, which in turn makes it unlikely he's doing real harm to the nation's security interests.

They're not sure, though. These officials are simply hoping for the best.

Fourth, the level of dysfunction in the White House is so severe that people around the president -- officials who've warned Trump about using unsecured devices, only to be ignored -- have decided they have to go the press in the hopes of embarrassing the president into being responsible.

But even if we put all of this aside, even if we somehow reach the conclusion that the security threats aren't all that important and West Wing dysfunction is trivial, we're left with a staggering political fiasco.

It's easy to forget, but the reason Republicans and much of the Beltway press was hysterical about Hillary Clinton's email server protocols -- a story that the American electorate was told to consider of the upmost importance ahead of the 2016 election -- was because of the concern that she put sensitive information at risk. It was, voters were told repeatedly, an unforgivable transgression.

During the 2016 campaign, for example, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) went so far as to formally request that Clinton be denied intelligence briefings -- because her server was proof that she couldn't be trusted to handle secrets.

This nonsense never really went away. Indeed, just two weeks ago, Trump again told Fox News that Hillary Clinton "should be in jail," not for leaking sensitive information, but for making it vulnerable to foreign interception.

I don't imagine any fair-minded observer believes the hysteria over Clinton's emails was offered in good faith, but the Republican president's use of unsecured devices puts a dagger through the heart of the Clinton story.

The one thing the right had on Clinton turns out to be something Trump is himself guilty of.

If even one Republican leader publicly condemns Trump's approach to IT security, schedules a congressional hearing, or requests an FBI investigation, I will gladly update this post and express my sincere astonishment. But since we can safely assume no GOP officials will take such a step, the next person who pretends to take the Clinton story seriously -- or the next audience who chants, "Lock her up" -- deserves to be laughed at mercilessly.