WASHINGTON – Chinese spies often eavesdrop on President Donald Trump when he uses his unsecure cellphone to talk with old friends, and Beijing uses what it learns to try to sway U.S. policy, The New York Times reported on Wednesday, citing current and former U.S. officials.
Trump’s aides have repeatedly warned him that his cellphone calls are not secure and that Russian spies routinely eavesdrop on the conversations, but they say the president still refuses to give up his cellular phones, the Times reported.
The officials said U.S. spy agencies had learned from people in foreign governments and by intercepting communications from foreign officials that China and Russia were listening to the president’s calls.
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the Times report. Apple declined to comment to the paper on Trump’s iPhones.
The Chinese have pieced together a list of people whom Trump regularly speaks to in hopes of using them to influence the president, according to the report. Russia’s operation is believed to be less sophisticated because of his “apparent affinity” for President Vladimir Putin, a former official is cited as saying.
While Trump is using his secure landlines more often, aides are said to be frustrated that he has refused to give up his two official iPhones and a personal one. The official devices have been modified by the National Security Agency to limit their capabilities, but the personal phone where he can store contacts isn’t, the paper said.
None are completely secure, because calls can be intercepted as they travel through cell towers, cables and switches that make up national and global phone networks, the report said.
China has a sophisticated approach toward the intercepted calls and is seeking to use them to determine what Trump thinks, whom he listens to and how best to sway him, the Times reported, cited the officials.
Beijing particularly is trying to use what it learns to prevent the current trade war between the two countries from escalating further, according to the newspaper.
Chinese officials rely on Chinese businessmen and others with ties to Beijing to feed arguments and viewpoints to Trump’s friends in an effort to influence him, the Times reported, citing the U.S. officials.
Blackstone Group chief executive Stephen Schwarzman and Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn are among “ideal targets” identified by China who can eventually convey Beijing’s views to Trump, the New York Times said.
A representative for Wynn declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for Schwarzman said 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.”
Concerns have been raised on several occasions this year about cellphone surveillance activity in the Washington area. The Department of Homeland Security said in a letter to several senators in March that it had observed activity in Washington consistent with mobile subscriber identity catchers.
An FCC commissioner said at a meeting the issue was serious and the surveillance tools could be used by criminals or foreign actors.
The Washington Post reported in June that a federal study found signs of sophisticated cellphone spying near the White House and other sensitive locations last year.