(Updated: April 4, 2017)
On January 20, businessman Donald J. Trump became the 45th president of the United States. In the Oval Office he found telephone sets for both secure and non-secure calls, which were installed under his predecessor Barack Obama. Trump called them "beautiful phones", but nonetheless some small changes were made, apparently to better fit the image that he wants to present of himself.
As Trump continued twittering there's speculation whether he still uses his very unsecure old Samsung Galaxy S III or a new phone that has been properly secured. At the moment this isn't clear, also because there are no photos yet showing Trump using a smartphone as president. This issue will be discussed when more information becomes available.
President Trump signing an executive order, with the modified Cisco 8841 IP Phone
and the older Cisco 7975 IP Phone with expansion module. January 24, 2017.
The wooden box with presidential seal is an emergency call device.
As we can see in this picture, there are the following telephone sets on the president's desk in the Oval Office:
- On the left: a new Cisco 8841 IP phone, which is part of the internal White House telephone network and can be used for all non-secure calls. This network was modernized since 2015, but the phone was not placed on the president's desk until late 2016.
On the back of this phone is a black metal box and on the front panel there's an extra red button, both of which are modifications by Advanced Programs, Inc. (API) in order to meet Telephone Security Group (TSG) standards, including on-hook security for the handset and the speakerphone and probably also for TEMPEST protection.
These modifications are to make sure that the phone cannot by any means be caused to produce or transmit audio when the handset is on-hook - whether accidental or deliberate. It's not for securing the calls by means of encryption.
As noticed on reddit, this Cisco IP phone may not be an 8841, but an 8851 or 8861, which have a USB port and a connection for a Key Expansion Module (KEM) on the right side of the phone. A close look at the photos seem to show that one of the anti-tamper labels covers these extra ports that the 8841 doesn't have:
- On the right: an older Cisco 7975G Unified IP Phone with expansion module 7916, which is for the highly secure Executive Voice over Secure IP-network connecting the president to all major decision makers, like the secretaries of State, Defense and Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence and top military officials.
This telephone network became operational in 2006 or 2007, but this particular phone is on the president's desk only since early 2011. Elsewhere, these phones usually have a bright yellow bezel or faceplate instead of the standard silver one, indicating they may be used for conversations up to the level of Top Secret/SCI.
Based upon the photos that have been published, president Trump used the non-secure telephone for calls with German chancellor Merkel and Saudi Arabia's king Salman, while the secure one was used for phone calls with Russian president Putin and Australian prime minister Turnbull. This means that these latter heads of state have been provided with the necessary encryption systems to set up a secure communication channel.
In an interview with The New York Times on January 25, president Trump said "These are the most beautiful phones I’ve ever used in my life" - which may sound a bit strange as both are regular models for management and executive positions in large businesses and organisations. In this case it's understandable though as in his Trump Tower office, there's just a mid-range Avaya/Lucent 8410 office phone from the mid-1990s with a tiny monochrome display, where both phones in the Oval Office have large full-color screens.
The old Avaya/Lucent 8410 on Trump's desk in Trump Tower,
while using his Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone
(click to enlarge)
Apparently referring to the Cisco 7975 for the secure Executive Network, Trump added that it is "The world’s most secure system - The words just explode in the air" - a rather odd way to say that these calls are highly encrypted and therefore impossible to intercept with the express purpose of course that the words do not dissappear in the air but reach the other end uninterrupted.
All this sounds like Trump was very happy with the telephone equipment he found in the Oval Office, but photos from just a few days later show that some changes were made to both phones on the president's desk:
- Instead of the Cisco 8841 IP phone modified for security reasons, there's now the regular commercial version of this telephone set, so without the additional box at the back and the red button on the front.
- The expansion module (with 12 buttons that allow up to 24 additional direct lines) of the older Cisco 7975G IP phone has been removed:
President Trump calling Australian prime minister Turnbull using the Cisco 7975G IP Phone
for secure calls (without expansion module). January 28, 2017
(photo: Drew Angerer/Getty - click to enlarge)
With the expansion module attached, the older Cisco 7975 IP phone was quite a large device, so probably Trump wanted to have it smaller to make room for all the paperwork he likes to have spread out on his desk. Apparently he saw no need for having the extra direct line buttons, probably because he can always have a Situation Room communications officer connect him to anyone he wants, but it may also symbolize that there's only a very small number of people that he is in contact with.
The reason for replacing the modified (and therefore more secure) Cisco 8841 by a regular version is more puzzling. It doesn't make the device smaller, nor easier to operate. The only thing is that the box on the back, the small red button and the silver anti-tamper seals draw some extra attention to the device.
That doesn't sound like a very big deal, but according to a report by The New York Times, visitors to the Oval Office said that Trump "is obsessed with the décor — it is both a totem of a victory that validates him as a serious person and an image-burnishing backdrop — so he has told his staff to schedule as many televised events in the room as possible".
President Trump speaks to Saudi Arabia's king Salman using
the Cisco 8841 for non-secure calls. January 29, 2017
Note the extra long handset cord
(photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters - click to enlarge)
So with the two telephones being necessary, they had to be as less distracting as possible: no sophisticated technical security improvements to gaze at, as well as leaving more space for the papers - everything to focus on Trump as a hard working president.
The piles of paper may be more suggestive than real though: like in his Trump Tower office, they are not just official reports and memos, but also include newspapers, magazines and printed web articles, from which Trump learns the news as he seems to have difficulties with reading more complex texts. But the papers also work rather chaotic, just like every aspect of his presidency so far.
Earlier presidents used to have their actual paper work not in the more ceremonial Oval Office, but for example in the little-known small private study right next to it. The Treaty Room in the residence part of the White House was also used as a private study, especially during the evening hours. President Trump however favors watching television shows, which he impulsively comments on twitter and seem to be his primary source of information.
The following photo from March 8, 2017, shows the White House office of deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. We see that the Cisco 8800-series IP phone on her desk still has the security modifications by Advanced Programs, Inc. (API) which the phone on president Trump's desk hasn't anymore:
Office of deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. March 8, 2017
(photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci - click to enlarge)
Ultimately on March 21, 2017, the Cisco IP phone from the 8800-series with the security modifications was back on the president's desk again, as can be seen in the photos taken when Trump signed a bill for the NASA budget:
The two Cisco IP phones on the president's desk on March 21, 2017.
(photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci - click to enlarge)
At the moment we can only guess about the reasons for these changes, but it's seems possible that, as a reader commented here, Trump "had the phones changed because he doesn't trust whatever was left around by the previous administration" - which fits a story about White House aides who became paranoia and fear that career intelligence employees are working to undermine the new president by monitoring their phone calls, emails, and text messages and subsequently leaking this information.
Trump wants his country's physical borders to be extremely secure, but he clearly has much less feeling for and experience with securing classified or sensitive information, illustrated by apparently preferring a regular Cisco 8841 IP phone on his desk, instead of the modified version that secures against sophisticated eavesdropping techniques.
Maybe he thinks that such risks are exaggerated by the intelligence and security people he is so skeptical about, but in the late 1990s it was for example suspected that the Israelis had penetrated and could listen into the (non-secure) internal White House telephone system.
Another example of Trump's sloppiness was when Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel, visited the Oval Office on February 8, and a lockbag with the key still in it was lying underneath a bunch of papers - a security violation for which Democratic senator Martin Heinrich called out Trump on twitter:
Such a lockbag is used for securely transporting classified documents, notably a method that Trump prefers, as he told reporters in response to questions about Russia's hacking of the Democratic party: "It's very important, if you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier, the old-fashioned way because I'll tell you what, no computer is safe."
Earlier, Trump said that computers "have complicated lives very greatly" and he himself doesn't use a computer nor e-mail, while his smartphone appears mainly for twitter. A big difference with president Obama, who used an iPad for government business and also received the President's Daily Brief on his tablet computer.
Trump however doesn't like to read long and nuanced intelligence reports and now gets much shorter daily national security briefings covering only three topics, typically no more than one page each. To keep the president's attention, intelligence analysts were even instructed to only include facts that support their analyses and not cover topics from different perspectives.
- The Washington Post: How President Trump consumes — or does not consume — top-secret intelligence
- Time: Donald Trump After Hours
- Politico: ‘People are scared’: Paranoia seizes Trump’s White House
- AP News: Media the enemy? Trump sure is an insatiable consumer
- Ned Price: I didn’t think I’d ever leave the CIA. But because of Trump, I quit.
- Dale Beran: 4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump
- API datasheet: 8841 Cisco IP Phone (pdf)
- See also the reactions on reddit