Executive Branch

Trump’s Intelligence Briefings: Better Than Some Feared, Worse Than Many Hoped

David Priess
Thursday, December 2, 2021, 12:05 PM

New information about interactions between intelligence officers and Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, as president-elect and as president points to the limits of what an enterprise dedicated to presenting objective intelligence can do for a customer who proves unwilling or unable to recognize and appreciate it.

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Reporters working the national security beat during Donald Trump’s single term in the White House wrote more frequently than during most administrations about the current president’s interactions with his intelligence community. No surprise there; much of that relationship seemed to play out in public view. Trump’s campaign derided the intelligence community’s judgments about Russian interference in the 2016 contest with the barb, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” President-elect Trump compared U.S. intelligence officers to Nazis. On his first full day in office, he used the backdrop of the CIA’s venerated Memorial Wall to brag about his appearances on the cover of Time magazine and the size of his inauguration crowd. Eighteen months later, Trump stood side by side with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and publicly undercut his own intelligence agencies about the Russian interference assessment.

And yet, even with all of that attention, details about Trump’s intelligence briefings came mostly from anonymous sourcesuntil recently, that is. The CIA has now published on its website an impressive amount of reliable information, including quotes from Trump’s own intelligence briefer, that sheds significant light on intelligence-policy relations in the Trump era and even offers a few surprises.

The Source

The information comes in a new edition of Getting to Know the President: Intelligence Briefings of Presidential Candidates, by John Helgerson. Despite its foundation in classified documents unavailable to most of us, this book is not an official U.S. government record. “All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis in this work are those of the author,” the book’s disclaimer reads. “They do not necessarily reflect official positions or views of the Central Intelligence Agency or any other US government entity, past or present.”

That said, Helgerson is not your average author. This former CIA inspector general, deputy director for intelligence and director of congressional affairs wrote the first edition of Getting to Know the President in the 1990s on behalf of the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence (CSI) and he has now updated it a third time for CSI.

Helgerson’s access to relevant Top Secret material has made his evolving book the definitive work on intelligence briefings to presidential candidates and presidents-elect, informing my own history of presidential intelligence, The President’s Book of Secrets. I conducted independent documentary research and interviewed presidents, vice presidents, CIA directors, and others to reinvestigate his facts and his judgments about many earlier administrations. It all checked out. In short, you don’t get a much better source on these things than Helgerson. I’m comfortable taking what he asserts to the bank.

There’s much to digest in his material. Here, I’ll focus only on the highlights of what he reportsbroken down by when the events happened. Quotes come directly from the Helgerson text.

During the Campaign

Well ahead of the 2016 campaign, President Barack Obama told officers in his Cabinet about his appreciation for the helpful and cooperative transition efforts of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and instructed his team to exceed that level of assistance to the next president. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper took this as license not only to set up the decades-long tradition of providing intelligence briefings to the major-party presidential candidates but also to add extra steps allowing the intelligence community to avoid even the appearance of politicization. Clapper stressed that the briefings would come from career intel officers, not political appointeesand that the group creating Obama’s President’s Daily Brief (PDB) and briefing it to administration officials would be completely separate from the group doing the same for the candidates’ briefings.

Clapper put Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Intelligence Integration Ted Gistaro in charge of the transition briefings, giving him complete responsibility for selecting additional members of his briefing team and deciding on the briefing topics for the candidates. Gistaro chose 14 substantive experts from multiple agencies to assist him, the largest and most organizationally diverse group of such experts ever deployed for briefings of presidential candidates.

The public learned during the campaign that Trump took two preelection intelligence briefings. Helgerson’s new material offers some fascinating new details about them.

The first briefing to Trump, on Aug. 17, saw Gistaro and his team brief the candidate as well as two advisers, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Michael Flynn and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, on a range of issues: terrorism, cybersecurity, counterterrorism (including the Islamic State in particular), the Syrian civil war, Iraqi security and Iran’s nuclear program. Trump largely listened, adding only a few “big picture” questions, while Flynn actively questioned the briefersmostly on tactical matters within the Middle East. Trump ended the session with a “thumbs-up” to the intelligence officers.

During the second briefing, on Sept. 2, the same three men heard about Russia, China, North Korea and cybersecurity. Unlike the first session, the second briefing brought many questions from Trump, mostly reflecting his interest in trade issues, finance and press reporting on Russia’s election interference. He told the briefing team that he had found the Aug. 17 meeting valuable, assuring them that the “nasty things” he was saying publicly about the intelligence community “don’t apply to you.”

During the Transition

President-elect Trump didn’t take an intelligence briefing until a week after the election, but he held sessions with Gistaro at a healthy clip thereafter: 14 briefings in 10 weeks. This doesn’t match the pattern of daily or near-daily briefings that some presidents-elect have established during their transitions, but it easily outpaces other incoming commanders in chief like Richard Nixonwho, in 1968-1969, set a low point by taking exactly zero briefings from intelligence officers before his inauguration.

Trump’s first postelection briefing, on Nov. 15, provided him with his first look at the PDBstill tailored to the current president but, by tradition for decades, shared with the president-elect. That day, it included items on Peru (where Obama would be traveling later in the week), Turkey, Syria, China, the Middle East and South Asia; Trump questioned or commented on five of them, asking why material in one subject in particular had not shown up in the media.

Helgerson’s new material confirms press reports from the transition and during the administration that Trump didn’t read the PDB but relied instead on the oral briefings. “He touched it,” Gistaro said about the president’s book of secrets, but “[h]e doesn’t really read anything.” DNI Clapper described these oral briefings as less than ideal for conveying objective information to the president-elect, saying that Trump was prone to “fly off on tangents” and prevent his briefers from providing more than “eight or nine minutes of real intelligence in an hour’s discussion.” The incoming commander in chief, he said, “was ‘fact-free’—evidence doesn’t cut it with him.”

For decades of presidential transitions, CIA analysts have prepared a book full of information about the dozens of foreign leaders the president-elect might meet or speak with by phone before taking office. The experience in 2016 was no different. The delivery of this book to Trump was delayed, however, because no one at Trump Tower felt comfortable receiving the classified book and taking responsibility for its secure storage. CIA officers ended up acquiring a special safe and installing it in the building, enabling the president-elect to have the relevant information in front of him when he spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence also got access to the PDB; he chose to take transition-period briefings virtually every weekdayincluding on the day of his son’s wedding. The 2016-2017 transition was also the first in which the outgoing White House approved, in writing, the PDB’s provision to Cabinet-level designees before their confirmation, once they were officially designated and received clearances.

Trump surprisingly took no briefing from the CIA on covert action programs until several weeks after his administration started. Pence and Flynn, however, got to hear about all the covert action programs on Dec. 7, as DNI-designate Dan Coats and Flynn’s incoming deputy, K.T. McFarland, also did in a later session. Flynn, in addition to this full covert action briefing, also received more than a dozen PDB briefings during the transition in the secure transition facility set up in Washington, D.C. 

During the Presidency

On the Monday after his appearance at the CIA’s Memorial Wall, Trump received his first PDB briefing as president. The hour-long session included three pieces that drew Trump’s particular interestone on Russian concerns about U.S. military capabilities, one on Islamic State manpower availability and another on oil prices. During the next five weeks, he averaged 2.5 PDB briefings per week, each lasting 40-60 minutes.

As always, the intelligence community tailored the PDB to the new presidentthis time, by reducing the number and length of its articles from what Obama had been getting. Trump’s book typically contained three one-page items covering new developments, supplemented by updates on Middle East crises. Trump also trimmed the number of senior officials who had access to the PDB, down from the 50-plus at the end of the Obama administration to 40-plusstill high by historical standards.

Although the ODNI kept producing the PDB every day, Trump’s limited schedule of in-person briefings required Gistaro to spend some time in each session with the president summarizing material from previous PDBs. Later in his termwhen Beth Sanner had relieved Gistaro and briefed Trumpthe sessions occurred twice per week, on average.

PDB briefings for the president stopped in late 2020 and didn’t come back until a different man, Joe Biden, held that office. Although Trump had told Sanner at his last in-person PDB briefing before departing for Mar-a-Lago for the holidays that he would see her later, he failed to restart the sessions after his return. The result: The commander in chief didn’t get his PDB for almost a month as he ended his term.

So What?

The new material contains myriad tidbits of limited interest to those not immersed in the minutiae of intelligence processes and products. Nevertheless, two themes deserve wider attention.

Trump’s briefings: A glass half-full or half-empty? The briefing schedule during the transition and for much of Trump’s term was heavier than many had predicted it would be for a man who claimed to be the smartest person in every room and who compared his intelligence officers to Nazis. And the fact that the PDB briefings’ frequency faded over time means little; presidents as different as Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, and Bill Clinton took more in-person intelligence briefings early in their tenure than near the end. At the same time, Trump’s decision to just cast aside his PDB for his final weeks in office stands out as one of the lowest points in U.S. intelligence-policy history.

Trump as a “fact-free” president. Helgerson simply but accurately summarizes the overall intelligence community experience with briefing Trump in the new chapter’s title: “Donald J. Trump—A Unique Challenge.” This echoes Clapper’s claim that the new president was “fact-free,” a situation the intelligence community truly had never faced before. Cutting the PDB’s length and emphasizing financial topics, among other tactics, seemed to help keep the president’s attention, but to what end? There’s a limit to what an enterprise dedicated to presenting objective intelligence can do for a customer who proves unwilling or unable to recognize and appreciate it.

David Priess is Director of Intelligence at Bedrock Learning, Inc. and a Senior Fellow at the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security. He served during the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations as a CIA officer and has written two books: “The President’s Book of Secrets,” about the top-secret President’s Daily Brief, and "How To Get Rid of a President," describing the ways American presidents have left office.

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