President Donald Trump’s phone habits and the security risks they pose are back in the news again. This time Trump appears to have fallen victim to a prank phone call from comedian and podcast host Stuttering John, who duped the president into believing he was Sen. Bob Menendez.
John Melendez, a former Howard Stern Show personality better known as Stuttering John, claims to have spoken with Trump after calling the White House and claiming to be the New Jersey Democrat. He released audio of the conversation with Trump, during which the president congratulated him on the Justice Department’s dismissal of corruption charges against him, discussed immigration and his next Supreme Court pick, and bragged about a North Dakota rally.
Melendez told CNN it took him about an hour and a half to get on the phone Trump and the president’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. “I am shocked,” Melendez said. “I mean, we did this as a goof; I’m a comedian.”
The White House hasn’t denied the authenticity of the audio.
The incident renews concerns about the security apparatus surrounding Trump and how seriously he and his advisers take it. By speaking on open phone lines and disregarding other security protocols, the White House risks foreign governments and ill-intentioned actors eavesdropping on Trump’s discussions about running the country, experts say.
Politico in May reported that Trump has bucked cellphone-security protocols because he thinks they’re “too inconvenient.” And chief of staff John Kelly’s phone was hacked, potentially compromising information from the Department of Homeland Security and within the West Wing. A British self-described “email prankster” has also tricked White House officials into thinking he was other officials and publicized their exchanges.
How John Melendez became Bob Menendez to Trump
Melendez told CNN that his team first called the White House and was honest about its identity, but the person who answered the phone said the president was busy and hung up. So the team tried again, this time saying the call was from Shawn Moore, a fake assistant to Menendez with an English accent. The White House said it would call back and did so, on a cellphone, on Wednesday while Trump was flying on Air Force One from a rally in Fargo, North Dakota.
Tune into my new Podcast where I prank call the President & he calls me from Air Force One!— John Melendez (@stutteringjohnm) June 28, 2018
“Congratulations on everything, we’re proud of you,” Trump told the person who he thought was Menendez. He said the senator was in a “tough, tough situation” and “not a very fair” one. Menendez had been indicted on corruption charges in 2015, but the Justice Department dismissed the indictment earlier this year. A judge last year declared a mistrial in the case after the jury failed to reach a unanimous agreement on the charges.
The private Trump, on the phone with the fake Sen. Menendez, was perhaps unsurprisingly similar to public Trump. Regarding the issue of reuniting migrant children separated from their parents at the border, the president said he believes lawmakers can “do a real immigration bill” and stressed the importance of border security. “I want to be able to take care of the situation every bit as much as everybody else at the top level,” he said. “I’d like to do the larger solution rather than the smaller solution.”
Discussing naming a replacement for outgoing Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Trump said he will make a decision over the next couple of weeks and has a “list of people” under consideration.
A White House official told CNN that the president “wants to be accessible to members and likes engaging with them and wants them to have the opportunity to connect.” Concerning the fact that the recent caller was the actual Sen. Menendez, the official said, “The downside of that is sometimes the channels are open too widely and mistakes like this happen.”
A White House aide told CNN that legislative director Marc Short shot down the idea of taking the call but Kushner put it through anyway.
According to Melendez’s Twitter account, the prank has not been without consequences. “Secret Service at my door,” he tweeted on Friday. He said he didn’t answer and the personnel left and that he’s now at an “undisclosed location.”
Secret Service at my door. I guess my old friend Donald wants to continue this. Stay tuned.— John Melendez (@stutteringjohnm) June 30, 2018
I’m currently an at undisclosed location. Sorry, love you all but I have to go to sleep. Red, can I get a rock hammer?— John Melendez (@stutteringjohnm) June 30, 2018
The president isn’t the only figure in his administration to be duped by outsiders. Last year a British email prankster fooled multiple White House officials and individuals in Trump’s orbit into communicating with him, including Eric Trump, another son of the president; Tom Bossert, a former homeland security adviser; and Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for the president. The anonymous jokester also twice tricked short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci.
It’s not great that it’s so easy to get in touch with the president
The Stuttering John prank call raises new concerns about Trump’s accessibility and how his administration views security protocols, but it isn’t the first time that the alarm bells have sounded.
Politico in May reported that Trump has bucked phone security protocols in the name of convenience and insists on using a phone not equipped with security features that would better shield his communications. He reportedly uses at least two iPhones from the White House — one capable of making calls and another that has only the Twitter app and some news sites.
The president has reportedly resisted advice from aides that he switch out the Twitter phone every 30 days and has gone at least five months without its being checked by security experts. The call-capable phone has a camera and microphone, which could make it a prime target for hackers. (The GPS locator on it is disabled.)
During the transition period before the president-elect’s inauguration, Trump’s freewheeling communications and habit of picking up the phone to call friends, reporters, and foreign leaders raised eyebrows. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called Trump to congratulate him on his victory after getting his phone number from professional golfer Greg Norman. Trump traded in his old Android phone when he was inaugurated.
Defense One reported soon after Trump became president that the Defense Department Information Systems Agency had developed a highly modified Boeing Black smartphone, a sort of super-secure device for the president, but it wasn’t clear if Trump planned to use it.
Regardless of whether he chooses to, it’ll take more than an extra-secure device to protect the president and his advisers from phone pranks.