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 (D-NJ).
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 his 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 Trump and the president’s son-in-law-cum-adviser, Jared Kushner, on the phone. “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 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 who they were, but the person who answered the phone said the president was busy and hung up. So they tried again as “Shawn Moore,” a fake assistant to Menendez with an English accent. The White House said they would call him back, and they did, on a cell phone, while Trump was flying back from a rally in Fargo, North Dakota on Wednesday on Air Force One.
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 who he thought was Menendez. He said the senator was in a “tough, tough situation,” and “not a very fair” situation. Menendez was indicted on corruption charges in 2015, but the Justice Department dismissed the indictment at the start of this year. A judge declared a mistrial last year in the case after the jury failed to reach a unanimous agreement on the charges against him.
Private Trump, on the phone with the fake Sen. Menendez, was, perhaps unsurprisingly, similar to public Trump. On immigration and 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.”
On 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.” As far as the Sen. Menendez who spoke with Trump not being the actual Sen. Menendez, the official said that “the downside of that is sometimes the channels are open too widely and mistakes like this happen.”
A White House aide told the publication that legislative director Marc Short shot down the call but that 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 overnight on Friday. He said he didn’t answer and they left, and 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 within his administration to be duped by outsiders. A British email prankster last year fooled multiple White House officials and individuals in Trump’s orbit into communicating with him, including the president’s son, Eric Trump, then-homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, and Kushner’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell. The anonymous jokester also tricked short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci twice.
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 thinks about security protocols, but it isn’t the first time 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 that isn’t equipped with security features that would best shield his communications. He reportedly uses at least two iPhones from the White House — one that’s capable of making calls, and another that has only the Twitter app and some news site.
He’s reportedly resisted advice from aides that he switch out the Twitter phone every 30 days and has gone at least five months without it 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, Trump’s free-wheeling communications and habit picking up the phone to call friends, reporters and foreign leaders raised eyebrows. After his election, 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 whether Trump planned to use it.
Whether he does or not, it’ll take more than an extra-secure device to protect the president and his advisers from phone pranks.