Trump Was ‘Fact Free’ During Briefings, Says Former National Intelligence Director

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Donald Trump - Credit: AP
Donald Trump - Credit: AP

During intelligence briefings, former President Donald Trump was “fact free” and prone to “fly off on tangents,” said James Clapper, former director of national intelligence.

Clapper’s comments come from a recently released CIA publication, Getting to Know the President, which chronicles the relationship between the intelligence community and U.S. presidents during their transition and administration. Written by retired intelligence officer John L. Helgerson, the latest chapter covers Trump and reveals how unprepared and unconventional Trump was. It is important to note, however, that this is not a neutral account, given Trump’s rocky history with the intelligence agencies.

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“Briefing Trump presented the IC with the most difficult challenges it had ever faced,” Helgerson wrote. According to the report, the intelligence community struggled large part because Trump “doubted the competence of intelligence professionals and felt no need for regular intelligence support.” Not since Nixon, nearly 50 years earlier, did the nation’s intelligence staff have such a difficult time with a president, Helgerson said.

Trump’s public and vocal criticism of the intelligence community created tension between them. Which is why, during one of his first intelligence briefings while he was still a candidate, Helgerson reported that briefers “were surprised” when Trump “assured them that ‘the nasty things he was saying’ publicly about the intelligence community ‘don’t apply to you.’ ” Then, in a televised debate with Hillary Clinton on Sept. 7, Trump claimed that briefers’ “body language” had suggested they were “not happy” with Obama’s policies.

After he was elected, Trump delayed receiving intelligence briefings by a week because his team was “not fully prepared to launch transition operations, apparently having not expected to win the election.” “Some awkwardness developed,” Helgerson wrote, when CIA personnel wanted to share printed classified information with Trump at Trump Tower, but no one on his staff wanted to be responsible for it and they had no way to store it securely. To solve the problem, the CIA installed a safe.

Even once Trump started receiving the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), a daily summary of high-level national security and intelligence issues, Trump chose not to read it, according to Ted Gistaro, a career CIA analyst who frequently briefed Trump. This backed up earlier reports that Trump did not read the PDB. “He touched it,” Gistaro said when asked how closely Trump read the briefs. “He doesn’t really read anything.”

Clapper agreed with Gistaro, telling Helgerson, “Trump doesn’t read much; he likes bullets.” Instead, during the Trump administration, the briefer would summarize aloud key points since the last briefing and provide three documents (none more than a page) about new developments abroad. This was all part of an effort to make the PDB “shorter and tighter, with declarative sentences and no feature-length pieces.”

“Trump had his own way of receiving intelligence information—and a uniquely rough way of dealing publicly with the IC,” Helgerson wrote, “but it was a system in which he digested the key points offered by the briefers, asked questions, engaged in discussion, made his own priority interests known, and used the information as a basis for discussions with his policy advisers.”

Russia represented “the most problematic aspect of the 2016 transition” for the intelligence community, and those problems would continue to be a source of tension during his administration. According to Hegelson, Russia was “central” to three separate issues at play: Russia’s hacking the DNC and leaking stolen emails to influence the election; the Steele dossier that allegedly contained compromising information on Trump; and contacts between Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and the Russian ambassador to the United States. Flynn later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the ambassador. Each of these issues “unfolded within the larger context of Trump’s very positive view and repeated public defenses of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” which complicated matters even more.

Trump’s repeated public attempts to discredit the intelligence community further fanned the flames. He speculated in a tweet that the IC was ill-prepared and didn’t know what they were talking about at a transition briefing, and he told the media that he didn’t believe Russia tried to interfere with the election to boost his chances of winning. “I don’t believe it. These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Trump said publicly, disparaging the IC.

Like Nixon, Helgerson wrote, Trump was “suspicious and insecure about the intelligence process.” But unlike Nixon, Trump didn’t just shut the IC out. He “attacked it publicly.” These and other difficulties agencies encountered under Trump led Helgerson to conclude that, “The system worked, but it struggled.”

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