‘Too inconvenient’: 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.
Story Continued Below
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.”