The people and things you might have seen on the Mar-a-Lago open-air terrace one winter evening in 2017 include water flutes filled with diet colas; bamboo-and-rattan outdoor dining chairs; Jay Weitzman, the CEO of a parking company; and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Also: Donald Trump and his entourage examining important documents detailing North Korean ballistic-missile capabilities.
That night, White House aides used smartphone flashlights to illuminate these highly sensitive papers in an unsecure area right there on the patio. If compromised, such phones would allow hackers to view whatever their camera and microphone see and hear. This carelessness from the same man who built his campaign against Hillary Clinton on her use of a private email server as secretary of state. (“Lock her up,” his supporters still chant, at Trump’s rallies.)
Trump has repeatedly proved himself a hypocrite when it comes to information security. Trump uses a smartphone without appropriate security features, potentially exposing his communications to surveillance or hacking. Another phone, which Trump uses to post to Twitter, should be swapped out regularly, according to White House information-technology practices, an arrangement Trump considers “too inconvenient.” Ivanka Trump also used a private email account to conduct official White House business—and Donald Trump defended her actions.
No other president has behaved this way. When Bill Clinton was in office, he sent two emails—total: “one to our troops in the Adriatic, and one to John Glenn when he was 77 years old in outer space.” The note to Glenn, in 1998, wasn’t just Clinton's first email as president—it was his first email ever. (There’s some debate about this tally, as my colleague Adrienne LaFrance has written.) Either way, the internet was still new to ordinary people, let alone a sitting president. Clinton also wanted to heed the requirements of national security and presidential record-keeping. “I figured it was okay if Congress subpoenaed those,” Clinton joked in 2011 about the two emails.
Soon enough, email started causing problems for presidential administrations. A 2007 congressional investigation revealed that George W. Bush administration officials had used a private email server run by the Republican National Committee, misplacing up to 22 million emails in the process.
Obama was the first president with a deep, personal commitment to email. He was inseparable from his BlackBerry during the 2008 campaign. After being elected, he fought hard to keep it; eventually he was allowed to use the device for communication with a small group of staff and personal friends—who would first require White House briefing. George W. Bush gave up email for the same reason: “Sadly I sign off,” he wrote to friends before being sworn in to office in 2001.
Donald Trump, by contrast, has spurned the norms set by his predecessors. The social role of smartphones and social media has changed considerably since Obama took office. They are a part of everyday life, for everyone. But that was also the case for email during the Bush and Obama administrations, and those presidents still heeded extreme caution in using it, precisely because they were taking on the most powerful job in the world.
Ultimately, Trump’s presidential authority allows him to ignore advice to use more secure devices and information practices. The fact that he won’t do so creates a precedent. That’s not because he’s the first president tweeting regularly, with his own fingers, with abandon, but because he’s the first one not to care about the consequences for the office, or the nation.