In Donald Trump’s White House, telephones were a valued commodity. The then-President loved to talk to everyone, said a former White House aide.
“He took everybody’s calls,” the aide said, even interrupting national security briefings to make and receive calls.
The phone was his lifeline, according to former Trump administration officials.
And the ex-President’s telephone habits have become a problem for January 6 investigators.
That’s because the House select committee looking into the US Capitol riot has discovered an unusual gap in Trump’s official White House phone log for multiple hours, according to sources familiar with the House investigation – from after he returned to the White House from speaking to his supporters at the Ellipse on January 6, 2021, until he spoke via video to the nation from the Rose Garden. And it has got investigators looking elsewhere – to other people’s cell phones and perhaps even to Trump’s own cell phones, although the committee has declined to take that uncomfortable step so far.
The difficulty for the committee in tracking down just whom Trump spoke with – and when – is dealing with his unorthodox phone habits while in office: According to multiple sources formerly in the administration, the ex-President often used other people’s telephones (or multiple phones of his own, sometimes rotated in and out of use) to communicate with his supporters – and even family.
One former staffer blamed the former President’s habit on an aversion to anyone listening to his calls (which, in the White House, is hard for a president to avoid if he calls from a desk phone). So he would, frequently, grab the cell phone of a nearby aide or even a Secret Service agent to make calls.
One case in point: After the Stormy Daniels story broke in 2018, Trump was on the golf course trying to reach his wife, Melania Trump, from his phone, and she did not pick up, according to a source with knowledge. So he turned to a Secret Service agent and used the agent’s phone to try to reach her instead. The first lady then picked up. According to this source, the agent was not pleased his phone had been used this way.
As CNN has reported, sources familiar with the investigation have not drawn any conclusions about the large gap in the phone records at this point. Trump may have decided not to make or receive calls, committee sources allow. There’s also a chance that the National Archives will find more records – on other people’s phones – to explain the gaps.
Multiple sources have told CNN that former White House deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino was a common conduit for Trump’s conversations, having an office in the outer Oval “within shouting distance” of the president. One source witnessed Scavino routinely handing his phone to Trump to take calls. The source describes Scavino as the “key to pretty much everything,” given how much time he spent with the then-President. An attorney for Scavino declined to comment.
Scavino, according to this source, had an official phone and a personal phone.
He has been subpoenaed by the January 6 committee and is suing Verizon because of the committee’s subpoena of his phone records. The lawsuit – still in its earliest stage – has temporarily stopped the phone company from giving logs of his calls and subscriber information to the House.
The way former aides tell it, people would often get through to Trump by calling staff around him. Some callers, the aides say, found it easiest to communicate through chief of staff Mark Meadows or even daughter Ivanka Trump. They would offer Trump a call from an ally who was on hold, and he would either take it or wave them off with the back of his hand.
“He liked to talk to people he agreed with,” said another aide.
In addition, Trump typically would not take his own personal cell phone into the Oval Office, according to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who tried multiple times to reach him as the riot raged.
“First, I called his secretary. She didn’t pick up the phone. Went right to her voicemail. Then I called his body person and he didn’t answer his phone. Then I called the White House switchboard and asked to be put through. And they said he was not available. And then I called his personal cell phone,” Christie told CNN’s Dana Bash in an interview last year. “I didn’t know where he was. I tried his cell phone and it went to voicemail.”
Trump never called Christie back that day, the former governor told Bash.
Trump did speak with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy during the insurrection – although it was not noted in the official call logs. A call earlier that morning with GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, first reported by CNN, was noted in the official log.
As a way to gauge how unprecedented Trump’s presidential behavior on the phone was – and how he ran the White House generally – a former senior White House official describes an early chaotic process with “almost no records of anything.”
“In fact,” this former official says, “no one ever thought to ever keep track of people going in and out of the Oval.”
According to another former White House official, “for large chunks, at least, and most likely for the entirety of the Trump presidency, there aren’t Oval Office visitor logs.” Keeping such logs is not mandated, but it had become the norm under previous administrations.
When Gen. John Kelly became Trump’s chief of staff in July 2017, he tried to clean up the messy phone process inside the White House – and his boss hated it, according to a former White House official. Kelly tried to keep call logs and screen Trump’s calls, but the President bristled at the restrictions, because he didn’t want Kelly to know with whom he was speaking, the former official said.
By comparison, a source with knowledge says that in the previous administration, all calls were run through official White House channels – through the residence, the switchboard, the Situation Room and the signal operator. There was no way to get around the tight strictures.
“It just didn’t happen,” the source said. There was no circumventing that.” And most calls were by appointment.
In addition, the source said, then-President Barack Obama Obama would never have been allowed to use the phone of an aide or Secret Service agent to make calls. “Heavens, no,” the source said.