Asia Pacific / Politics

Trump tweets from China would carry multiple risks

Phone is at risk of monitoring; censored citizens could resent special privilege; Beijing may object if not consulted

by Margaret Talev, Jennifer Jacobs and Justin Sink

Bloomberg, AFP-JIJI

This is not a trick question: Should President Donald Trump tweet from China?

Of course he will, if he can, administration officials say — even at the risk of flouting the privilege in a nation that generally denies Western social media to its own people, and at the risk of having his phone monitored.

And unless the U.S. first discussed it with the Chinese government, which isn’t clear, Trump could create diplomatic tensions by tweeting.

So the answer has implications for cybersecurity, diplomacy, business and human rights.

“The president will tweet whatever he wants,” one senior White House official told reporters aboard Air Force One shortly before Trump landed in Beijing. “That’s his way of communicating directly with the American people. Why not? So long as he can access his Twitter account. … I’m sure we’ve got the gear aboard this airplane to make it happen.”

The White House convened internal discussions and tapped counterintelligence officials to consult on the matter before the president left for Asia last week, said a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Staffers traveling with the president were advised to leave their personal cellphones behind and instead carry travel phones, people familiar with the matter said.

China blocks Twitter for most of its citizens. People with access to virtual private networks (VPNs) have been able to bypass restrictions on social media despite government efforts to crack down on the practice.

China has occasionally allowed brief access to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter when it hosts international summits. And President Xi Jinping’s government has made Twitter available to various high-level foreigners, said Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program with the Council on Foreign Relations. Ahead of Trump’s arrival, he said, the Chinese government signaled that if Trump wanted to tweet, no one would stop him.

The question may be how — not if — he brings his tweets to China.

“Most people worried about security, when they go to China, don’t bring their own phones or bring a burner phone,” Segal said. “On the security side, I assume they’d prefer he didn’t use his phone.”In fact, all White House staffers have temporary burner phones that will be purged when they get back.

Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, said in an email that Xi’s government has imposed “Orwellian controls” on free expression and social media, imposing restrictions and unchecked surveillance and prosecuting its critics.

“If President Trump is able to tweet from China, it’s because he enjoys privileges President Xi systematically denies to people across that country: access to circumvention technology, an actionable right to free speech and, of course, an ability to leave China freely should the authorities there dislike what he says,” said Richardson.

Twitter declined to say whether its representatives had consulted with the Trump administration ahead of the visit, citing a policy of not commenting on discussions with government officials.

“Our consumer service is censored and blocked in mainland China today,” the company said in a statement. “As a global platform, we are already engaged with advertisers, content providers and influencers across Greater China to help them reach audiences around the world.”

Trump has overturned convention at home with his use of Twitter to announce policy, stoke culture wars, settle personal grievances and generally bypass the filters of his own aides and the media. Trump continues to get as many likes and retweets as ever. He tweeted as many as 109 times in one week in September amid an uproar over some football players kneeling during the national anthem, according to Talkwalker, which analyzes social media data.

He has kept up the pace on his Asia visit so far, tweeting dozens of times from Air Force One and during stops in Tokyo and Seoul on issues ranging from Hillary Clinton to the stock market to the new shooting in Texas to the trip itself.

But there isn’t much precedent for how he should deal with China.

Trump’s immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, was the first sitting president with a Twitter account. But that didn’t happen until late in his presidency, and he didn’t tweet with nearly Trump’s frequency. A review of his account during his last official trip to China in 2016 shows that he didn’t tweet during his time on the ground.

One former Obama adviser said all government travelers were advised not to take their own cell phones into China. They were told that anything officials carried into the country should be disposable and to assume any equipment used was being monitored.

Former White House press secretary Josh Earnest recalled that Obama did use an iPad in China. He said an aide had to hold it at all times, and it couldn’t be connected to the Internet through local networks.