Trump goes rogue on phone security
President Donald Trump uses a White House cellphone that isn’t equipped with sophisticated security features designed to shield his communications, according to two senior administration officials — a departure from the practice of his predecessors that potentially exposes him to hacking or surveillance.
The president, who relies on cellphones to reach his friends and millions of Twitter followers, has rebuffed staff efforts to strengthen security around his phone use, according to the administration officials.
The president uses at least two iPhones, according to one of the officials. The phones — one capable only of making calls, the other equipped only with the Twitter app and preloaded with a handful of news sites — are issued by White House Information Technology and the White House Communications Agency, an office staffed by military personnel that oversees White House telecommunications.
While aides have urged the president to swap out the Twitter phone on a monthly basis, Trump has resisted their entreaties, telling them it was “too inconvenient,” the same administration official said.
The president has gone as long as five months without having the phone checked by security experts. It is unclear how often Trump’s call-capable phones, which are essentially used as burner phones, are swapped out.
President Barack Obama handed over his White House phones every 30 days to be examined by telecommunications staffers for hacking and other suspicious activity, according to an Obama administration official.
The White House declined to comment for this story, but a senior West Wing official said the call-capable phones “are seamlessly swapped out on a regular basis through routine support operations. Because of the security controls of the Twitter phone and the Twitter account, it does not necessitate regular change-out.”
Trump’s call-capable cellphone has a camera and microphone, unlike the White House-issued cellphones used by Obama. Keeping those components creates a risk that hackers could use them to access the phone and monitor the president’s movements. The GPS location tracker, however — which can be used to track the president’s whereabouts — is disabled on Trump’s devices.
The West Wing official refuted the idea that the presence of a camera and microphone on the president’s phone posed any risk, telling POLITICO, “Due to inherent capabilities and advancement in technologies, these devices are more secure than any Obama-era devices.”
Trump’s reluctance to submit to White House security protocols that would limit his ability to tweet or contact friends freely is a case of the president’s personal peculiarities colliding with the demands of his office — a tension created in part because of society’s growing attachment to mobile technology over the past decade.
Obama, who relied on email and text messages, was the first president to speak publicly about his desire to hang on to his cellphone in office and to be photographed repeatedly with it in hand. Trump, who doesn’t use email in office, entered the White House eight years later with a long-established Twitter habit and a lifelong attachment of doing business, dealing with the press and gabbing with associates over the phone.
Former national security officials are virtually unanimous in their agreement about the dangers posed by cellphones, which are vulnerable to hacking by domestic and foreign actors who would want to listen in on the president’s conversations or monitor his movements.
“Foreign adversaries seeking intelligence about the U.S. are relentless in their pursuit of vulnerabilities in our government’s communications networks, and there is no more sought-after intelligence target than the president of the United States,” said Nate Jones, former director of counterterrorism on the National Security Council in the Obama administration and the founder of Culper Partners, a consulting firm.
While the president has the authority to override or ignore the advice provided by aides and advisers for reasons of comfort or convenience, Jones said, “doing so could pose significant risks to the country.”
Trump campaigned in part on his denunciations of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state — a system that made classified information vulnerable to hacking by hostile actors.
“Her server was easily hacked by foreign governments, perhaps even by her financial backers in communist China — sure they have it — putting all of America and our citizens in danger, great danger,” Trump said in a June 2016 speech in which he called Clinton “the most corrupt person ever to run for president.” He repeatedly vowed on the trail to “lock her up.”
Dozens of Trump’s friends and advisers testify to his frequent cellphone use. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Trump confidant, told POLITICO in April that he hears from the president either late at night or early in the morning, sometimes from a blocked number and sometimes from “a 10-digit number that starts with a 202 area code.”
Three White House aides confirmed that Trump’s cellphone number changes from time to time. Several aides close to the president also carry secure devices from which he can place calls — a standard practice in any presidential administration.
Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly has cracked down on personal cellphone use by White House staff, citing security risks.
Personal cellphones were banned from the West Wing in January in order to “protect White House information technology infrastructure from compromise and sensitive or classified information from unauthorized access or dissemination,” according to a memo sent to staff.
The memo was sent after Kelly’s own phone was apparently compromised during the Trump transition. At the time, according to a senior administration official, he was told to replace the phone — his own personal device — though he didn’t do so until October, after POLITICO reported the potential hacking.
Though it was unclear whether Kelly’s phone was compromised by a foreign government, cybersecurity experts pointed to sophisticated adversaries like Russia and China as the biggest threats, and expressed shock over the president’s refusal to take measures to protect himself from them, particularly when engaged in delicate negotiations.
“It’s baffling that Trump isn’t taking baseline cybersecurity measures at a time when he is trying to negotiate his way out of a trade war with China, a country that is known for using cyber tactics to gain the upper hand in business negotiations,” said Samm Sacks, a China and technology expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Former government officials from Republican and Democratic administrations expressed astonishment that any White House would issue the president a cellphone that posed a security threat.
“This would be the case of a president overruling literally the most rudimentary advice given by the communications agencies,” said Andrew McLaughlin, who served as deputy chief technology officer under Obama and helped develop the former president’s specialized phone.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has warned of the threats posed by unsecured devices and is considering banning personal cellphones as well as exercise trackers from the Pentagon. “It’s about electronics, GPS-enabled electronics. You have to also consider the fact that we have been attacked, bases have been attacked. Information is power and our adversaries have used information to plan attacks against us,” Mattis spokeswoman Dana White told reporters in early February.
Trump is not the first president to struggle with the relative isolation of the Oval Office and cling to his cellphone as a way to stay connected with friends and family outside of Washington. Three days before his inauguration in 2001, George W. Bush sent a wistful message to friends announcing that he would no longer use email. “Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace. This saddens me,” he wrote them.
Eight years later, Obama begged advisers to find a way for him to keep his beloved BlackBerry after his election and said publicly he used the phone as a way to reach beyond the Washington bubble.
A notorious text and email junkie who was frequently spotted on the campaign trail with headphones plugged in his ears listening to music streaming from his phone, Obama tasked his transition team with developing a phone that complied with the White House’s stringent electronic security guidelines. “I’m still clinging to my BlackBerry,” he told CNBC in January 2009, days before his inauguration.
The Obama transition team produced a military-grade phone without a microphone, camera, or location tracker that could not make or receive calls.
“I get the thing, and they’re all like, ‘Well, Mr. President, for security reasons … it doesn’t take pictures, you can’t text, the phone doesn’t work … you can’t play your music on it,’” Obama told Jimmy Fallon in 2016. “Basically, it’s like, does your 3-year-old have one of those play phones?”