Trump ‘routinely’ made sensitive calls on lines open to Russian surveillance, White House officials say

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Donald Trump has routinely communicated with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and other individuals speaking on mobile phones vulnerable to monitoring by Russian and other foreign intelligence services, say current and former US officials.

Phone records released this week by the House Intelligence Committee revealed extensive communications among Mr Giuliani, unidentified individuals at the White House and others involved in the campaign to pressure Ukraine, with no indication that those calls were encrypted or otherwise shielded from foreign surveillance.

The revelations raise the possibility that Moscow was able to learn about aspects of Mr Trump’s attempt to get Ukraine to investigate a political rival months before that effort was exposed by a whistleblower report and the impeachment inquiry, officials said.

Mr Trump is not identified by name in the House phone records, but investigators said they suspect he may be a person with a blocked number listed as “-1” in the files. And administration officials said separately that Mr Trump has communicated regularly with Mr Giuliani on unsecured lines.

“It happened all the time,” said one former White House official, who noted that Mr Giuliani had a range of foreign clients.

The disclosures provide fresh evidence suggesting that the president continues to defy the security guidance urged by his own aides and followed by previous incumbents – a stance that is particularly remarkable given Mr Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign for her use of a private email account while she served as secretary of state.

The connection to the Ukraine campaign is also troubling because of how Moscow could exploit knowledge that Mr Trump was secretly engaged in efforts to extract political favours from the government in Kiev.

Insight into Mr Giuliani’s discussions with Mr Trump could enable Moscow to adapt or amplify its own propaganda efforts, now widely embraced by Mr Trump’s Republican allies, promoting the baseless claim that Ukraine, rather than Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee in the 2016 US election. Russia is already using its disinformation capabilities to target US citizens, officials said, and could enlist its own operatives in Ukraine to feed false information to Mr Giuliani, who travelled to Kiev this week. He met there with a Ukrainian lawmaker who studied at the KGB’s academy in Moscow in the early 1990s.

The White House declined to comment, and Mr Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr Trump and Mr Giuliani have effectively “given the Russians ammunition they can use in an overt fashion, a covert fashion or in the twisting of information,” said John Sipher, former deputy chief of Russia operations at the CIA. Mr Sipher and others said it is so likely that Russia tracked the calls of Mr Giuliani and others that the Kremlin probably knows more now about those conversations than impeachment investigators. 

“Congress and investigators have call records that suggest certain things but have no means whatsoever of getting the actual text” of what was said, Mr Sipher said. “I guarantee the Russians have the actual information.”

US officials said that Mr Giuliani would have been considered a target of Russian intelligence efforts from early in Mr Trump’s presidency, and that it is assumed that the Kremlin intensified its surveillance of the president’s lawyer when he turned his focus to Ukraine – a former Soviet republic and target of Kremlin aggression where Russian intelligence has made deep inroads – late last year.

“That would definitely put him on the radar,” said a US official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “There’s no way around that.” 

Other officials went further, saying Mr Trump’s conduct has become a matter of renewed concern among senior officials at the White House after repeated attempts to break him of his habit of speaking on his own mobile or to others using unsecured lines.

“It’s absolutely a security issue,” the former official said, saying foreign intelligence agencies could be listening in on the president’s unsecured calls with Mr Giuliani. ”It’s a bonanza for them.“

Former officials said Mr Trump has provided his private mobile number to British prime minister Boris Johnson, French president Emmanuel Macron and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but it’s unclear whether he has had conversations with those leaders on his mobile phone. Four people in communication with him in recent months said that he continues to use that device routinely.

Former White House chief of staff John Kelly and intelligence officials made a concerted attempt in 2017 to get Mr Trump to use secure White House lines, even after the president had retreated to the residence in the evenings, officials said. But when Mr Trump realised that this enabled Mr Kelly to compile daily logs of his calls, and the identities of those he was speaking to, Mr Trump became annoyed and reverted to using his mobile, officials said. “He was totally paranoid that everyone knew who he was talking to,” a former senior administration official said. 

Aides were so determined to push the president to use hardened landlines that they gave him a tutorial on how foreign governments could listen to his calls, former administration officials said. Aides said that Mr Trump’s habits improved but that he still frequently used a mobile they viewed as less safe. 

The president now uses a government mobile that is routinely scrubbed, administration officials say, but it is still viewed as less safe than using the secure lines. 

The House report identifies dozens of calls at key moments in the campaign to pressure Ukraine that may have been vulnerable to Russian monitoring. 

On the day that then-US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was told by the State Department to return to Washington, Mr Giuliani had 11 calls with phone numbers associated with the White House, according to the report, as well as a nearly nine-minute phone call with “-1.” 

In the middle of that flurry of communications, Mr Giuliani had an eight-minute phone call with Lev Parnas, his Soviet-born associate, raising the possibility that the former New York mayor may have been recounting his interactions with the White House that day. Foreign intelligence agencies often glean information about a primary target, such as a senior official in the White House, through monitoring the ancillary communications of others in touch with them, according to former intelligence operatives.

The web of calls underscores the extent to which Mr Trump entrusted aspects of his secret agenda with Ukraine to a network of people outside the US government. 

Senior administration officials, including former top White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill, testified that they were largely kept in the dark about Mr Giuliani’s activities and communications with Mr Trump. 

US officials said that Russia has benefited from nearly every aspect of the Ukraine controversy, including the strain it has placed on Ukraine’s relationship with the United States, the attempt to divert attention from Russia’s own attacks on a US election, and the paralysing impact the impeachment inquiry has had on Washington. 

House speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Wednesday that the House would proceed with articles of impeachment against Mr Trump, who is accused of abusing the powers of his office for political gain. At the centre of the case is a 25 July call in which Mr Trump asked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, and probe a debunked conspiracy theory that blames Ukraine rather than Russia for hacking the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election.

As alleged leverage, Mr Trump withheld a White House meeting sought by Mr Zelensky until the Ukrainian leader made a public commitment to those investigations, which stood to help Mr Trump in the 2020 election, and ordered a suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in US military aid to Ukraine.

The records released in the House impeachment report show potential security vulnerabilities that extend beyond the White House. The report also lists calls between representative Devin Nunes the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, and Mr Parnas, who officials said is also considered a likely target of Russian intelligence, given that he was going back and forth to Ukraine and speaking to high-level tycoons and government officials there.

In an appearance on Fox News this week, Mr Nunes said that he didn’t recall speaking with Mr Parnas but that it was possible. A spokesman for Mr Nunes did not respond to requests for comment on his communications with Mr Parnas and Mr Giuliani. 

US ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland also spoke in July with Mr Trump by mobile from an outdoor table at a restaurant in central Kiev, a city where US officials said Russia had intercepted a phone call in 2014 between two senior US diplomats and leaked it to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe.

House investigators’ ability to obtain Mr Giuliani’s call records by subpoenaing logs from mobile phone companies suggests that those calls were not made using secure lines or encrypted applications such as Signal or WhatsApp – which likely would have rendered those calls invisible to the mobile providers. 

The metadata logs provide details on the time, duration and participants on the calls, but not their contents. Citing that gap, Mr Giuliani suggested this week that he may not have been speaking to Mr Trump about Ukraine during the conversations. 

“The mere fact I had numerous calls with the White House does not establish any specific topic,” Mr Giuliani said in a tweet on Wednesday. “Remember, I’m the president’s attorney.” 

But Mr Giuliani has previously said he was updating the president regularly on his Ukraine activities, and Mr Trump told those working on Ukraine policy to go through Mr Giuliani. 

Even the use of a secure White House line provides no meaningful security if the recipient of the call is on an insecure line or mobile, officials said.

“Giuliani calling the president through the Situation Room does not guarantee any level of security because he’s using a commercial cellphone and at least part of his call is coming over commercial phone lines,” said Larry Pfeiffer, former senior director of the White House Situation Room in the Obama administration and former chief of staff to the CIA director. And even if both parties were using commercially encrypted apps such as WhatsApp or Signal, Mr Pfeiffer said, “I would not want to be trusting commercial encryption over government encryption when conducting national security business.”

Mr Giuliani has used the WhatsApp encrypted text application but is otherwise known for his lack of technological sophistication.

Mr Giuliani has pocket-dialled reporters by accident in recent months and, according to NBC News, at least once went to the Apple store in San Francisco because he had locked himself out of his iPhone. US officials said Russia would likely have him under physical surveillance when he is in Ukraine, where he arrived this week to work on a documentary aimed at discrediting the impeachment inquiry.

The Washington Post