The president’s confusing, concerning, and ultimately crazy week continued on Thursday with a prickly Time cover package. It contained an unnerving interview between the magazine’s White House correspondent and Donald Trump. Based on his answers, the president really, really doesn’t understand modern technology, and his aversion to it could end up being a threat to national security.
Let’s just jump right into the compromising quotes. When asked about the future of America’s new Ford-class aircraft carriers, Trump began rambling about the catapults that send fighter jets speeding off the deck. To be more specific, Ford-class carriers use a new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launching System (EMALS), an innovative approach that does away with aging steam-powered catapults. Essentially, the system works like a maglev train, pushing a plane up to speed with the help of some computers. Trump jumped right into a tirade about the new-fangled technology:
You know the catapult is quite important. So I said what is this? Sir, this is our digital catapult system. He said well, we’re going to this because we wanted to keep up with modern [technology]. I said you don’t use steam anymore for catapult? No sir. I said, “Ah, how is it working?” “Sir, not good. Not good. Doesn’t have the power. You know the steam is just brutal. You see that sucker going and steam’s going all over the place, there’s planes thrown in the air.”
It’s a little unclear if the president considers “planes thrown in the air” a good thing. And since Trump is a lying liar who tells dangerous lies, it’s also unclear if the unnamed Naval officer talking to the president actually said these things. However, the idea that the electromagnetic catapult system has encountered some problems in its development is not entirely false.
Just a couple of years ago, tests showed that EMALS failed 1 out of every 240 launches. That’s not good when a failure could put a $50-million jet and two pilots in the ocean, but it’s also not unusual for new technologies to suffer some bumps in the road during development. Either way, as our friends at Foxtrot Alpha point out, the electromagnetic catapult system could be essential in half a century when the USS Gerald R. Ford and the two other carriers in its class are still supposed to be in service.
“The whole idea of ripping out the launch system in the already-built Ford, and re-designing the following carriers (including the already-under construction USS Enterprise), would be ‘immensely expensive,’” Foxtrot’s Mike Ballaban writes, quoting carrier expert Dr. Robert Farley, who called Trump’s statements “totally nuts.”
But the second part of Trump’s quote is more revealing about the president’s nefarious and perhaps dangerous tendency to discount modern technology:
It sounded bad to me. Digital. They have digital. What is digital? And it’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. And I said—and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said what system are you going to be—“Sir, we’re staying with digital.” I said no you’re not. You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.
Again, ripping out “the digital” would also cost hundreds of millions of dollars and leave the Navy with outdated technology for at least the next 50 years. Trump’s idea isn’t just terrible reasoning; it’s a threat to national security.
Donald Trump, of course, is famous for not understanding how modern technology works. A little over a year ago, Gizmodo’s own Matt Novak conducted an investigation and couldn’t figure out if Trump had ever used a computer. A couple weeks after his election, our billionaire president was photographed in the cool blue glow of a MacBook Pro, but he does not look confident in what he’s doing with the machine. Trump doesn’t use email, and it appears that he uses a smartphone strictly for phone calls and tweets.
Trump publicly acknowledges his love and daily use of obsolete technology. Beyond the years-old Samsung Galaxy phone he used throughout the campaign and during his early days in office, Trump is a big fan of TiVo because it lets him fast-forward through his precious TV shows, calling it “one of the great inventions of all time.” (Most smart TVs let you do anything a TiVo can do without the need to buy an extra box.) Because he doesn’t email, Trump sends praise and disapproval to reporters by fax. This stuff is sort of funny when it’s about Trump’s idiosyncratic love of old technology that he thinks “just works.” It’s absolutely terrifying when you think about how it might guide cybersecurity or defense strategy.
At the end of the day, we could be witnessing another Trumpian manipulation of the truth (also known as a lie) with his “I don’t understand digital, whatever” act. But all evidence points to the idea that President Trump actually doesn’t understand modern technology or its necessity in a changing world—and is willing to sacrifice national security as a result. He demonstrated this ignorance by avoiding cybersecurity policy and then appointing fellow luddite Rudy Giuliani to build his cybersecurity team. (This was a terrible idea from the start.) Perhaps looking for a win after the Comey controversy, Trump finally signed his cybersecurity order on Thursday afternoon. According to Politico, cybersecurity experts say that the order “breaks little new ground.”
Trump spews a lot of bullshit. We all know this by now. Who knows if he even talked to the Navy about the new digital catapult system. There’s a good chance he just saw some conservative pundit yelling about the cost on Fox News and decided to regurgitate those points in the Time interview. If there’s anything Trump does understand, it’s how to repeat what’s said on Fox News.