It was impossible to tell which sirens and police barriers were because of the bomb-mailing spree and which were just ordinary security theater. At the Y, three or so blocks from CNN headquarters, they were checking membership cards before letting people go to the gym for kiddie basketball. It was another bad day, and it surely was the president’s fault.
And then, at least, the New York Times had a story about the president, one more story that would have been the biggest story of the day or week if it were not for the perpetual crisis, which is a circular state of affairs, since the crisis is the cumulative effect of the president’s all-encompassing crookedness and incompetence. This new story was a gravely serious story but it was also comic relief; it fit perfectly into the president’s space on the Venn diagram, because it was entirely predictable—it had, in fact, been thoroughly predicted—and nevertheless astonishing.
The story was that the President of the United States is too stubborn and too stupid to use a secure cell phone, so his constant conversations with his cronies and enablers all happen with foreign intelligence services listening in. Of course he is, of course he does, of course they do. The man staged his handling of a North Korean missile crisis as a floor show on the dining terrace for the guests of his private club. It would almost seem as if he might have too little internal life to understand the concept of a secret, if it weren’t for his concealed tax forms and the NDAs he makes his mistresses sign.
Usually, the Times‘ White House insider reporting gets batted around like a tetherball, both by the sources who manipulate it in advance and by the readership infuriated by the manipulation once it’s published. Everyone is right, and wrong: Yes, the Trump-whispering reporters are too credulous and too caught up in the amoral intrigues of the people they cover; yes, also, their work is the reason we’ve gotten some of the most indelible images of the ridiculousness and monstrousness of this presidency. Every big administration-insider story is an nth-degree exercise in balancing harm and value, in letting the paper be used but not too used, and the Times does all this while clinging, as a matter of institutional creed, to a willful obtuseness about the fact that it is creating and participating in the news, not merely and humbly recording events.
This one, though? This one was the work of the angels—or rather of government officials with deep concerns about the integrity of the national-security state, but you take what you can get these days. The cherub-spooks were, according to the Times, sharing their story “not to undermine Mr. Trump, but out of frustration with what they considered the president’s casual approach to electronic security.”
In context, it doesn’t even seem possible to undermine Donald Trump. He comes pre-undermined, a gaping sinkhole of the Dunning-Kruger effect, incapable of understanding what he’s incapable of. The intelligence people try to make him use more secure phones and he ignores them and keeps using a normal hackable off-the-shelf iPhone, because “he can store his contacts in it” and “he does not want a call going through the White House switchboard and logged for senior aides to see.”
When he does use the more secure phones, he refuses to switch them out regularly, the Times reported, “bristling at the inconvenience.”
And so, the intelligence people told the Times, the Chinese and the Russians are camped out on the line as the president vents to “hosts at Fox News” or his plutocrat buddies. China, the Times reported, uses the information in a “marriage of lobbying and espionage” to get the right people to put messages in the ears of the people to carry to the president. It should be sinister but somehow, when Trump is already directly involved in favor-trading deals between casino magnates and foreign powers, the idea of manipulating the president through stealth and subterfuge ends up seeming idealistic and quaint.
Besides, the Times reported, there are limits to how much of a security risk the president can be:
Administration officials said Mr. Trump’s longtime paranoia about surveillance — well before coming to the White House he believed that 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.
That’s the good news: In the estimation of the officials, Donald Trump is too dumb to be dangerous. Normal security precautions may be too overwhelming and novel for him to handle, but his brain is a secure airgap. It’s no problem if the Chinese have access to his most private thoughts. Under the hairdo is Al Capone’s vault.