Tuesday, May 22, 2018


Politico has a big story today:
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....

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 obvious point, to quote the title of a Jonathan Chait post, is that "Trump Is Doing Same Thing He Demanded Clinton Be Locked Up For." His so-called Twitter phone is insecure. His alleged phone-exclusive device has hackable components. And he doesn't care.

But I'm wondering about this detail in the Politico story:
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.”
Um, why is Trump making calls on any phone that doesn't block his number? Isn't that an extreme security risk?

Sure, we're told that, in addition to his two phones (only one of which is supposed to be able to make phone calls), he also has other phones at hand:
Several aides close to the president also carry secure devices from which he can place calls — a standard practice in any presidential administration.
But wouldn't those devices also have blocked numbers?

A quick search tells me that if you received a call from the phone of a lower-level White House aide during the Obama years, the number would be blocked. Here's a story about Tangela Roberts, a Boston University graduate student who was invited to a White House LGBT event in 2016 (emphasis added below):
On the day of the Pride event, Roberts was with the friend she was staying with in Washington, D.C. when she got a call from a blocked number. Her friend joked that it was the White House calling. It was.

“The person at the other end said, ‘I’m calling you because you actually are going to meet the president. I need you to meet at this portrait of a past president at this specific time.’ I dropped the phone,” Roberts said.

Roberts went to the Abraham Lincoln portrait at the appointed time, along with a dozen others. While they were waiting, they heard applause outside. Suddenly, President Barack Obama appeared in the room where they were being held.
Here's a 2015 Politico story about a congressional Democrat who was at odds with the Obama White House on trade:
Texas Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa had just put out a statement opposing President Barack Obama’s trade platform when his cellphone starting flashing with a blocked number. He assumed White House political director David Simas was calling to ask him to stop.

Hinojosa didn’t pick up.

“What was he going to do? We’re pretty firm on our opposition to this,” Hinojosa recalled in an interview.
Here's a passage from Senator Arlen Spector's memoir in which he talks about a phone conversation his chief of staff had with a White House official just after he switched to the Democratic Party in 2009:

It sure looks as if the phone number of everyone in the White House was blocked as far back as Obama's first year.

We know the number is blocked on some of Trump's calls -- Gaetz says so. We also assume that Trump's pre-presidential phone blocked its number, based on suspicion that Donald Trump Jr.'s calls to a blocked number before and after that notorious June 2016 Trump Tower meeting were to his father.

So how is Trump still managing to make calls on phones that lack this simple security measure, if every call he makes is on a phone that's been cleared with White House IT?

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