The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Clinton and Trump will soon receive classified briefings. Here’s how that works.

Representative James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) listens to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as she delivers her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Thursday. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

At some point, perhaps as early as next week, federal agents will sit down with Donald Trump and tell him classified information about the government and our foreign-policy efforts.

For Democrats, this is a point of both anguish and political calculation. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid has suggested that Trump's murky ties to foreign interests and general inability to not speak his mind should be reason enough for the people briefing him to simply make things up. On the Republican side, there are similar calls to ban Hillary Clinton from being briefed, including by Trump, pointing to her use of a personal email server while she served as secretary of state.

And here's the thing: If he wanted to, President Obama could deny either or both of them the now-traditional briefings. The process doesn't work the way you might think.

For one thing, the briefings are not legally mandated. They are a courtesy provided by the sitting president, nothing more. In an email, historian Michael Beschloss explained that the process began with President Harry Truman. In 1952, as Truman was preparing to leave the White House, he ordered that the CIA brief Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson "so that they would campaign with greater insight and also know key national security players once elected." (A bigger problem, he notes, for Stevenson, a governor, than Eisenhower, who'd commanded the Allied invasion of Normandy.) No president has to do it; presidents a century ago didn't.

For another, the briefings are not an ongoing series of updates about everything affecting our foreign policy. They aren't as regular or as detailed as the Presidential Daily Brief, for example. It's at most a couple of in-person meetings between the candidate, a staffer and representatives of the American intelligence community.

Lanhee Chen, who worked as the chief policy adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, spoke with The Washington Post by phone on Thursday. Chen was the one staffer that attended Mitt Romney's two briefings four years ago.

Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail

CLEVELAND, OH - On the third day of a bus tour through Pennsylvania and Ohio, Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton along with running mate Senator Tim Kaine, and Anne Holton, aboard the campaign bus in Cleveland, Ohio on Sunday July 31, 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

"The nominee has access to one, maybe two or three [briefings] upon request, but that's it," Chen said. "Because it's not like you have a ton of time to sit there and get briefed every day anyway."

"The briefings have to take place in SCIFs" — sensitive compartmented information facilities — "or secure conferencing facilities that the government has, so it's not like you can just get the briefing on the campaign bus," he said. "We had two briefings: One was at the federal building in Los Angeles in September, and the second was a few weeks later at a secure facility in the Washington, D.C., metro area. That was it."

The number and content of those briefings are negotiated between the campaign and the White House. A memorandum of understanding is drafted between the two parties to formalize the agreement, but Chen notes that the process was remarkably easy and cordial — particularly given that the administration that was briefing Romney was also in the process of trying to defeat him electorally.

The briefings themselves Chen described as a sort of presentation followed by a question-and-answer period. "It is, as I understand it, the same team of briefers from the intelligence community that prepare the briefing for the candidate" as those who do the president's daily briefing, Chen said. "But the level of detail as well as the amount of information covered is not the same. It is meant to be a background briefing more than anything else." The information that's presented is tailored to what the candidate would like to know; as you might expect, there are no handouts.

It's worth noting that, while these are the only formal briefings, there was information shared by the federal government with the Romney campaign outside of the scope of national security. As Hurricane Sandy approached that fall, Chen said, the campaign was given emergency-response information from the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.

What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at Trump Doral golf course in Miami, Florida, U.S. July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

In order to participate in the briefings, Chen had to complete paperwork to grant him top-secret security clearance, which he held through the end of the campaign. Romney didn't, Chen said.

"The assumption is that a certain amount of sensitive information can be shared with the nominee because the nominee has been publicly vetted," Chen said. Both GOP vice-presidential nominee Rep. Paul D. Ryan and Romney had held or did hold security clearance (Romney's stemming from his time managing the 2002 Winter Olympics), but if they hadn't — like Trump — they would not have had to submit the same documentation.

"The information we received was obviously classified," he said, "but I don't believe that that information was of the same scope and specificity that the president or vice president or other national security leaders get once they're actually in office." He also indicated that the people conducting the briefing were more than capable of understanding what sorts of boundaries to information-sharing shouldn't and wouldn't be crossed. (He didn't recall any instance in which Romney was told that information couldn't be shared with him.)

For those worried about a candidate getting access to information and then using it in the campaign, it has happened — or so Richard Nixon believed. Beschloss related a story about the 1960 election, pitting John F. Kennedy against Nixon, who was then serving as vice president to Eisenhower, known colloquially as "Ike."

In 1960, Ike had JFK briefed by CIA Director Allen Dulles. That fall, JFK publicly called for US-backed “freedom-fighters” to invade Castro’s Cuba.
Nixon was furious, presuming that Dulles had told JFK about the CIA-backed invasion then being planned (the record is unclear about what exactly Dulles told JFK about this), and that JFK had gone ahead and publicly called for something he knew the CIA was secretly planning. Nixon said in his book "Six Crises" that, to protect the operation’s secrecy, he felt compelled in his TV debates against JFK to denounce the idea of such an invasion, which he did — handing JFK the potent Cuba issue, so he felt.
Also Nixon was angry at Dulles for not using his briefing of JFK to definitively knock down the idea of a Missile Gap — notion that USSR was soaring ahead of US in missiles — leaving JFK free to use this important issue in the campaign. Nixon felt that Dulles did so deliberately in order to cultivate JFK and get reappointed to the CIA, which he was. It left Nixon forever suspicious of the CIA and its ability to foil him politically (a refrain you can hear on the Nixon tapes when he was President).

Chen doesn't figure that concerns about either of the current nominees potentially using information to their advantage (or letting something slip) will cause the Obama administration to avoid briefing a candidate or skip the briefings entirely. He notes that what is disclosed is up to the administration, and how it is disclosed is up to people briefing the candidates who are well aware of the risks of sharing information — and how to nuance what's said.

But he also notes that the process of national security briefings is a small part of what makes presidential transitions smooth and conflict-free."There is a lot of discretion, comity and professional courtesy involved in how it all works. But it did all work," he said.

"It sort of gave me even more faith in the nature of our democratic system," Chen said, "that there could be this kind of information-sharing and civil dialogue, even in the heat of a very, very difficult campaign."

Or put another way: The briefings are a well-controlled feature to our democracy, not a bug.