Trump Tweets From China

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  • White House staff advised to leave personal phones at home
  • China cracked down on people trying to access social media
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President Donald Trump thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping by tweet on Wednesday for his hospitality in Beijing, using his favorite communications platform for the first time in a nation that generally denies Western social media to its own people.

“On behalf of @FLOTUS Melania and I, THANK YOU for an unforgettable afternoon and evening at the Forbidden City in Beijing, President Xi and Madame Peng Liyuan. We are looking forward to rejoining you tomorrow morning,” Trump tweeted.

Whether Trump should tweet from China was the subject of consternation in the run-up to his trip to Asia, raising concerns about cybersecurity, diplomacy, business issues and human rights. The White House convened internal discussions and tapped U.S. counterintelligence officials to consult on the matter before the president left on the trip last week, said a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But with his tweet from Beijing on Wednesday, Trump answered at least one question: pernicious state control of communications networks won’t hinder him.

China blocks Twitter for most of its citizens, though people with access to virtual private networks, or VPNs, have been able to bypass social media restrictions 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 Chinese 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 had signaled that if Trump wanted to tweet, no one would stop him.

Trump tweeted from South Korea using his iPhone. But his first China tweet, as well as a subsequent tweet from Beijing warning North Korea “DO NOT TRY US,” were sent from a web browser, not Twitter’s iPhone app, according to Tweetdeck.

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

Burner Phone

“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.” 

And in fact, all White House staff have 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 use, imposing cybersecurity and national security restrictions, unchecked surveillance and prosecutions of 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.

‘Censored and blocked’

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.”

The U.S. president 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, and he tweeted as many as 109 times in one week in September amid an uproar over some National Football League 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 shooting in Texas to the trip itself.

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

Obama in 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, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said all government travelers -- particularly those with security clearance and access to the most sensitive information -- 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 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. The U.S. government would scan devices before entering and after leaving China, checking for any changes.

Earnest said it may not have much impact with an audience that overwhelmingly lacks the ability to access the message.

“He should do a Twitter town hall and take questions that Chinese submit through social media,” Earnest said. “That would make a statement in support of a principle.”

For more on Trump’s use of Twitter, check out the Decrypted  podcast:

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