January 26, 2021

The phones in president Biden's Oval Office

(Updated: February 21, 2021)

On January 20, Joseph R. Biden Jr. was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. As such he has access to the presidential communications system, including secure and non-secure telephone lines.

Here, I will discuss a small and unnoticed change in the telephones on the desk of the new president, as well as what happened to the call device that became known as Trump's "Diet Coke Button".


President Joe Biden in the Oval Office, January 20, 2021.
(click to enlarge)



The telephones on Biden's desk

Already on his first day as president, Biden went to the Oval Office of the White House to sign a range of executive orders.

By then, this famous room had already been redecorated with new paintings, busts and photographs, while Trump's beige rug had been replaced by the deep blue one from Bill Clinton's Oval Office. The flags of the five branches of the US Armed Forces have also been removed.

A close look at the photos shows that there was also a small change in the telephone equipment. On Biden's presidential desk there are now two identical phone sets, which can be identified as the high-end Cisco IP 8851 Phone:




Both phones are not the standard commercially available model, however, as they have been modified by a small communications security company called Advanced Programs, Inc. (API). This can be recognized by the dark gray metal box at the back side of the phone's color display and an additional red button on the front panel of the phone:


The purpose of these modifications is to provide on-hook security for the handset and the speakerphone and probably also for TEMPEST protection - to make sure that the phone cannot, either accidentally or deliberately, pick up and transmit audio when the handset is on-hook.


Comparing the two phones on Biden's desk with the ones used by president Trump, we see that under Trump only one of the Cisco 8851 IP phones had the aforementioned modifications. The other phone was the standard model:


Former president Donald Trump in the Oval Office, December 3, 2020.
(photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times - click to enlarge)



Unclassified phone calls

The modified Cisco 8851 IP phone was placed on the president's desk by the end of 2016, replacing an old Avaya/Lucent 8520T of the internal White House telephone network which is used for all kinds of unclassified phone calls.

This telephone connects to the regular White House switchboard in the basement of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where operators can set up calls to whoever the president wants to speak with.


Classified phone calls

The standard, unmodified Cisco 8851 IP phone on Trump's desk was for the highly secure Executive Voice over Secure IP-network which is part of the Crisis Management System (CMS) and connects the President, the National Security Council, Cabinet members, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, various intelligence agency headquarters and watch centers, as well as Continuity of Operations (COOP) sites.

This telephone replaced an old Cisco 7975 IP phone in September 2017 and connects to the so-called Signal switchboard of the White House Communications Agency (WHCA). The WHCA is a joint military unit that provides the president with secure and non-secure communications in Washington as well as during presidential travels. The Signal board also connects to the White House Situation Room.


Despite being used for classified conversations, the Cisco 8851 IP phone for secure calls wasn't equipped with the additional security features like the non-secure telephone - probably because secure calls travel over a separate, encrypted network, which mitigates the risk that adversaries can abuse the phone's microphones for eavesdropping.

But now, under president Biden, the phone for secure calls also has the modifications for on-hook security. Maybe this was considered safer, or maybe it's just to make both phone sets look the same, so outsiders cannot see whether the president is making a classified or an unclassified phone call based upon which telephone he is using.


Usually, the phones for the secure top-level telephone network can be recognized by a bright yellow faceplate, as can be seen at the modified Cisco IP phone that is used when the president is outside the White House, for example.

Yellow is the color code for the highest classification category: Top Secret/SCI, but in the Oval Office this would probably stand out too much, so here this phone just has the presidential seal in the bottom left corner of the black display section:

Close-up of the presidential seal on a Cisco 8851 IP phone


Update #1:

Around the first of February 2021, there was another small change in the phone on Biden's desk in the Oval Office: as can be seen in the picture below, the Cisco IP phone on the left, probably the one for unclassified conversations, now has an Key Expansion Module attached to it, which provides 14 additional programmable direct line buttons.


President Biden's desk in the Oval Office. One of the Cisco 8851 IP phones
having an additional Key Expansion Module, February 2, 2021
(photo: AFP via Getty Images - click to enlarge)


Under Obama, the old Cisco 7975 IP Phone for secure calls had a similar expansion module, but under president Trump that module was removed. Apparently he saw no need for having the extra direct line buttons, probably because he could always make calls via the White House switchboard operator, but it also symbolized that there was only a very small group of people he was in contact with.


Update #2:

On February 18, 2021, the White House released a photo in which we see president Biden in the office of his secretary, just outside the Oval Office. On the desk in front of him are the same modified Cisco 8851 IP phone sets as on his own desk, although here, both have an additional Key Expansion Module.

In the Oval Office, the phones have brown network cables to blend in with the furniture, but in the secretary's office the cables are color-coded: green for the Unclassified network and yellow for the Top Secret/SCI telephone network:


President Biden watches the landing of NASA's Perseverance vehicle on Mars
(White House photo, February 18, 2021 - click to enlarge)



The president's call button

While the small change in phones wasn't noticed, there was quite some media attention for something that appeared missing on the desk of president Biden: the wooden box with the presidential seal and a red push-button, which became known as Trump's "Diet Coke Button".




The removal of this box was just temporarily though, because meanwhile it has been placed back on the president's desk, as can be seen in this photo from January 25:


President Joe Biden at his desk in the Oval Office, January 25, 2021
(click to enlarge)


Trump's "Diet Coke Button"

There are a lot of stories about how president Trump used the button. Former White House communications aide Cliff Sims, for example, wrote in his 2019 book Team of Vipers that Trump would prank visitors by hitting the button and suggesting it was related to the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

"Out of nowhere, he'd suddenly press the button," Sims wrote. "Not sure what to do, guests would look at one another with raised eyebrows" he added. "Moments later, a steward would enter the room carrying a glass filled with Diet Coke on a silver platter, and Trump would burst out laughing."

On Twitter, Times Radio political commentator Newton Dunn recalled a similar situation: "When Tim Shipman and I interviewed Donald Trump in 2019, we became fascinated by what the little red button did. Eventually Trump pressed it, and a butler swiftly brought in a Diet Coke on a silver platter."


Trump's glass of Diet Coke in front of the Cisco 8851 IP phone for secure calls
(photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters - click to enlarge)


Earlier usage of the call button

The box with the call button is in the Oval Office already since the presidency of Bill Clinton and it's not only on the president's desk, but also on a side table in the seating area and in the small presidential dining room nearby the Oval Office.

The button has nothing to do with nuclear command and control, but can be used by the president to summon assistance. According to earlier sources, it was meant to alert the Secret Service, while others say that pushing the button makes an aide come in for whatever the president may need.

In his autobiography Finding My Virginity from 2017, billionaire Richard Branson recalled what president Obama once said during a lunch in the Oval Office: "As we stood up to leave I noticed the red buttons on his desk. Obama saw me looking at them," Branson wrote. "He said, 'They used to be there for emergencies, but now I use them for ordering tea for my guests.' "



President George W. Bush in the small dining room near the Oval Office
On the table is the wooden box with the call button
(click to enlarge)



Links & sources

- Homepage of the White House Communications Agency
- Politico: Trump hid his calls with Putin. Now, Biden has access to them. (2021)
- Secrecy News: Biden Issues National Security Directive 1 (2021)
- Reuters.com: Phone calls with Trump: more risky venture than diplomatic boon (2019)
- People.com: Richard Branson Reveals the Real Purpose for Barack Obama's Oval Office Red Button (2017)
- The Week: Who answers the White House phone, anyway? (2010)
- The New York Times: Whitehouse; A Switchboard That is Justly Fabled (1983)


4 comments:

Billy said...

"Moments later, a steward would enter the room carrying a glass filled with Diet Coke on a silver platter, and Trump would burst out laughing."

We know this story is bullshit, as Trump has never once "burst out laughing".

Anonymous said...

Thank you. /s/ Joe Tag .

Unknown said...

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ASHE said...

In the face of hard evidence, I hope that the United States will admit its mistakes and give you an explanation instead of continuing to quibble.