The Washington Post's Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker explain how President Trump receives his daily intelligence briefing, and the techniques briefers use to give the president information. (Video: Peter Stevenson/Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post) 2 min.
Most mornings, often at 10:30, sometimes earlier, Trump sits behind the historic Resolute desk and, with a fresh Diet Coke fizzing and papers piled high, receives top-secret updates on the world’s hot spots. The president interrupts his briefers with questions but also with random asides. He asks that the top brass of the intelligence community be present, and he demands brevity.
As they huddle around the desk, Trump likes to pore over visuals — maps, charts, pictures and videos, as well as “killer graphics,” as CIA Director Mike Pompeo phrased it.
“That’s our task, right? To deliver the material in a way that he can best understand the information we’re trying to communicate,” said Pompeo, adding that he, too, prefers to “get to the core of the issue quickly.”
Yet there are signs that the president may not be retaining all the intelligence he is presented, fully absorbing its nuance, or respecting the sensitivities of the information and how it was gathered.
From left, acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats are questioned at a Senate hearing on May 11. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
“I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” Trump told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during their May 10 meeting in the Oval Office, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the exchange.
He recently — despite all evidence to the contrary — said that perhaps China, not Russia, had tried to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. And during a meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, the president seemed to effectively confirm that the private information he divulged to the Russian diplomats came from Israel.
“Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name Israel,” Trump told reporters, responding to a question no one had asked. “Never mentioned it during that conversation.”
In March, the president also pressured two of the nation’s top intelligence officials to help him publicly push back against the FBI investigation into possible collusion between the Russian government and his campaign, a request both men felt was inappropriate.
This portrait of Trump as a consumer of the nation’s secrets is based on interviews with several senior administration officials who regularly attend his briefings. Some of the interviews were conducted in early May, before the president’s meeting with the Russians.
Trump’s posture toward the intelligence community and its work product has evolved in the months since he was sworn in as president.
Before his inauguration, Trump spoke of U.S. spy agencies with contempt. He sent demeaning tweets accusing intelligence officials of behaving as though they were in “Nazi Germany,” and he assailed them for what he said were “disgraceful” leaks to the media regarding Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Intelligence officials were prepared to deliver daily briefings to Trump throughout the transition period, but the president-elect often turned them away, usually agreeing to sit for briefings only once or twice per week.
“You know, I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years,” Trump told Fox News last December.
President Barack Obama offered a retort when he later appeared on “The Daily Show.”
“It doesn’t matter how smart you are,” Obama said. “. . . If you’re not getting their perspective, their detailed perspective, then you are flying blind.”
As president, Trump now takes briefings nearly every day. In a White House with few steadying mechanisms — and one led by a Washington neophyte who bristles at structure and protocol — the daily intelligence briefing is the rare constant.
The sessions often run past their scheduled time, stretching for 30 or 45 minutes, prompting Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, to pop into the Oval Office to cut off the discussion: “Mr. President, we’ve got people backing up outside.”
“A president who I think came into the office thinking he would focus on domestic issues — ‘make America great again’ — has learned that you inherit the world and its problems when you’re president of the United States,” said Daniel Coats, director of national intelligence and a frequent participant in Trump’s briefings.
“One time he came in and said, ‘All right, what’s the bad news this morning?’ ” Coats added. “You can see the weight of the burden on the shoulders of the president.”
Yet while Pompeo and Coats praise the intelligence-consuming habits of the president who appointed them, Trump’s standing among career intelligence officers remains strained. He has continued to disparage their motives and work — most notably by refusing to accept the consensus of the CIA, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that Russia waged an unprecedented effort to disrupt the 2016 election. In a recent television interview, Trump said that it “could have been China, could have been a lot of different groups.”
And Trump’s reaction to the disclosure that he shared highly classified information with Russian officials was to declare it his “absolute right” to do so and lash out at leakers — making clear that he still sees his own intelligence services as adversaries.
Shortly after taking the oath of office, Trump visited CIA headquarters and delivered a freewheeling speech in which he boasted that “probably almost everybody in this room voted for me,” while standing in front of the agency’s sacred memorial wall that honors employees killed in the line of duty.
Mark Lowenthal, a former assistant director of the CIA and the president of the Intelligence and Security Academy, said Trump’s biggest challenge is his “lack of previous exposure” to sensitive intelligence.
“Pompeo and Coats are doing their best to give him the most accurate daily briefing, but my sense is in the rank-and-file, they are very worried about how do you deal with him and about sharing with him sensitive material,” Lowenthal said. “This is the result of his behavior, both during the campaign and that visit to the CIA, which was a disaster, and now the whole Russia briefing.”
Still, Trump tells advisers that he values his daily briefings. Though career intelligence analysts often take the lead in delivering them, Trump likes his political appointees — Pompeo and Coats — to attend, along with national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Pompeo and Coats, whose offices are in McLean, Va., have had to redesign their daily routines so that they spend many mornings at the White House.
Vice President Pence usually attends, while other administration principals join depending on the topic of the day, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly. Senior members of the West Wing staff sometimes float in and out of the Oval Office during the briefings.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, often observes quietly; he receives his own intelligence briefing earlier in the morning, according to two White House officials. Some Democrats are now calling for Kushner’s security clearance to be reviewed after The Washington Post reported Friday that he attempted to set up back-channel communications with the Russian government during the presidential transition.
The briefings are tailored around events on the president’s schedule. For example, if a foreign leader is visiting, Trump will receive information pertinent to that country, often delivered by a subject-area expert.
Intelligence officials said they use the briefings in part to impress upon a president who has viewed their community with skepticism the breadth and depth of the government’s espionage capabilities.
Trump prefers free-flowing conversations over listening to his briefers teach lessons. “It’s a very oral, interactive discussion, as opposed to sitting there and reading from a text or a script,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo added: “He always asks hard questions, which I think is the sign of a good intelligence consumer. He’ll challenge analytic lines that we’ll present, which is again completely appropriate. . . . It is frequently the case that we’ll find that we need to go back and do more work to develop something, to round something out.”
Trump will task his briefers with returning the next day with more information about a particular subject, or will turn to McMaster and say, “General, give me more information,” according to Coats.
Presidents have received daily intelligence updates for more than 50 years, usually in written form as the President’s Daily Brief, as the classified document is known. The “briefing book” is designed to provide a summary from all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies of key security developments and insights, in the United States and abroad.
The ways in which presidents have processed the material have varied greatly, based on their preferences. For instance, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush favored daily in-person oral briefings, according to David Priess, a former intelligence officer and CIA briefer. Some presidents read materials in narrative form, while others preferred shorter updates known as “snowflakes,” he said.
“The President’s Daily Brief is adapted to the personality and the style of each president,” said Priess, author of “The President’s Book of Secrets.” “It can be longer; it can be shorter. It can have greater sourcing information; it can have thinner sourcing information. It can have in-depth assessments; it can have virtual tweets.”