A comedian claims to have spoken for several minutes with President Donald Trump after calling the White House and pretending to be a U.S. senator, in an episode that has revived scrutiny of the security of the Trump administration’s communications.
John Melendez, who is better known by his longtime moniker on “the Howard Stern Show,” Stuttering John, released audio of the purported conversation on his latest podcast Thursday.
In the call, Melendez poses as Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and appears to be patched through to Trump while the president is aboard Air Force One on his way back to Washington after his Wednesday night rally in Fargo, N.D.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A person familiar with the situation said that the White House called Menendez’s office Thursday morning to discuss the matter.
“Hi, Bob,” Trump says on the call, according to the audio aired on “the Stuttering John Podcast,” before going on to offer his congratulations to “Menendez.” The New Jersey Democrat fended off a challenger this month in a closer-than-expected Senate primary after avoiding conviction in a federal corruption trial last year.
“You went through a tough, tough situation - and I don’t think a very fair situation - but congratulations,” Trump says on the call.
Melendez and Trump then have a chat about immigration policy and the process of choosing a Supreme Court nominee before wrapping up their conversation a few minutes later.
“You take care,” Trump says at the end of the call. “I will speak to you soon, Bob. Take care of yourself.”
In a statement, Menendez said he would be glad to have an actual conversation with Trump on immigration.
“As someone who has spent my entire career trying to convince Republicans to join me in reforming our nation’s broken immigration system, I welcome any opportunity to have a real conversation with the president on how to uphold the American values that have guided our family-based immigration policy for the past century,” he said.
The news comes one month after reports that Trump’s use of government-issued smartphones may open him up to security risks. The president also faced criticism last year for discussing the sensitive issue of how the U.S. should respond to a North Korean ballistic missile test while on the terrace of his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, as waiters and curious patrons watched and snapped photos.
Melendez, who left Stern’s show in 2004 and went on to work as an announcer for Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” has long been known for ambushing celebrities with embarrassing questions. In one memorable appearance, he asked Gennifer Flowers at her 1992 news conference about her affair with Bill Clinton, “Will you be sleeping with any other presidential candidates?”
“A lot of these celebrities don’t get it - they don’t want to ever be able to laugh at themselves,” Melendez told The Washington Post in a 1994 interview. “They are so used to being treated as the elite, they put themselves on such a pedestal. They forget they are just human beings.”
Melendez said in an interview with CNN on Friday that he was “shocked” that he was able to successfully reach the president.
“I mean, we did this as a goof; I’m a comedian,” Melendez said. “I just could not believe that it took us an hour and a half to get Jared Kushner and Donald Trump on the phone from Air Force One.” Kushner is Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law.
In a tweet Thursday night, Melendez said he “totally duped the President” and had gotten in touch with him within “less than 2 hours while he was on Air Force One.” He also voiced surprise news outlets had not picked up the story.
On the podcast, Melendez first calls the White House switchboard and identifies himself as “Stuttering John Melendez,” but is told Trump is unavailable. He then calls back from his California cell phone and - while speaking in a vaguely British accent - identifies himself as Menendez’s assistant and says the senator wishes to speak to Trump about “a certain bill that’s pressing right now.”
A White House operator eventually calls back and connects him with Trump aboard Air Force One.
In the conversation, Melendez asks Trump how he plans to proceed on the hot-button topic of family separations at the U.S. southern border, telling the president, “My constituents are giving me a lot of beef about this immigration thing.”
Trump replies by voicing optimism Congress can “do a real immigration bill.” Lawmakers left town this week after failing to pass two separate immigration bills, and they remain divided on how to proceed on a narrower solution to the family-separation issue.
“I’d like to do the larger solution rather than the smaller solution,” Trump says on the call, adding: “I think we can do the whole thing. I have a good relationship with the party; you have a good relationship with the party.”
He goes on to advocate for stronger border security, telling Melendez it’s “good for both of us.”
“No, I understand that, but I am Hispanic,” Melendez replies. “So, you know, I have to look after my people as well. You understand.”
“I agree. I agree,” Trump says.
Melendez also tells Trump on the call not to “go too conservative” with his choice for a Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement Wednesday.
Trump responds that he expects to make a decision on a nominee “over the next 12 to 14 days.”
“I have a list of people. I have a big list of people, Bob, and we’ll take a look at it and we’re gonna make a decision,” Trump says.
By Friday night, the call had become cable news fodder, with guests on CNN and MSNBC marveling at the ease with which Melendez was apparently able to get through to the president.
“This may be the best way to get an interview with President Trump now,” host Chuck Todd joked during a roundtable on MSNBC.
CNN political analyst Ryan Lizza wondered why the White House wasn’t alarmed by the red flags raised by Melendez’s call.
“Why would Bob Menendez, New Jersey senator, have an assistant with an English accent and an L.A. area code?” he asked.
Philip Rucker contributed to this report.