Chris Whipple is the author of the forthcoming book “The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future.”
Another question may be as important: How does Trump absorb information? For decades, the president’s daily briefs (PDBs) have sounded early warnings on everything from enemy troop movements to pandemics to terrorist attacks. Yet under Trump, the president’s intelligence briefings have almost completely broken down. His oral briefings, given daily to most presidents, now take place as rarely as once or twice a week. These sessions often turn into monologues in which the president spitballs woolly conspiracy theories from Breitbart, Fox News and hangers-on at Mar-a-Lago, say intelligence officials who are familiar with his briefings. Convinced that the intelligence community is a “deep state,” honeycombed with traitors, the president rarely believes anything the CIA tells him.
In short, Trump is unbriefable.
To be sure, every president consumes information differently: Ronald Reagan read the PDB every morning but preferred movies — so the CIA created short film biopics of foreign leaders. Bill Clinton often skipped his oral briefing but devoured the PDB, scribbling questions in the margins. (He also read political thrillers and badgered his advisers about the real-world threats of bioterrorism and pandemics — which led to the establishment of the national PPE stockpile.) Barack Obama read the daily brief on his iPad and sent it back with detailed queries.
But Trump does not read the PDB. Or much of anything else, a former senior White House official told me. As his presidency began, it was an open question: Would Trump even bother to sit for CIA briefings? He didn’t, at first, and did so only after Mike Pompeo, then his CIA director, agreed to be there. Trump’s distrust of the intelligence services was stoked by their conclusion that Russia had intervened in the election on his behalf. Given his hostility toward the intelligence community, and his Twitter-sized attention span, Trump would be a challenge for any briefer.
Trump’s first briefer was Ted Gistaro, a widely respected career CIA officer on loan to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), where he oversaw the PDB. Gistaro, who has a calm demeanor and a healthy sense of humor, got almost nowhere — so the briefing team devised a show and tell. Pictures of New York City landmarks, agency briefers thought, might help Trump grasp threats. In an effort to explain the scale of North Korea’s nuclear program, the CIA built a model of the Hermit Kingdom’s underground weapons facility and put a miniature Statue of Liberty inside it.
But Trump preferred his own sources. In July 2017, he batted away the CIA’s conclusion that the North Koreans had developed an intercontinental missile that might soon be capable of reaching U.S. soil. How could the president be certain the agency was wrong? Because, he said, Vladimir Putin told him so.
Obama used to attend “Terror Tuesdays,” a special White House session to ensure agencies worked together to meet looming threats. Under Trump, the meetings were scrapped. Meanwhile, Trump removed his acting director of national intelligence, a deputy and the principal executive; the new DNI is a former Texas congressman who echoed Trump’s bogus conspiracy theories during the impeachment proceedings.
As a result, those within the administration who might challenge the president’s deeply held views are as rare as coronavirus vaccines. In January 2019, then-DNI Dan Coats made the politically fatal mistake of telling Congress that Tehran was in compliance with the nuclear agreement. Coats, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Gistaro were treated to an Oval Office tongue lashing and a tweet admonishing them to “go back to school.” This from a man who, prior to being elected, did not know the difference between the Quds Force — elite members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard — and the Kurds.
Trump’s current briefer, Beth Sanner, a highly regarded, 30-year CIA veteran, has endured a bumpier ride than Gistaro. When news broke that the alleged Russian bounties were included in the PDB, the Trump administration issued its usual denials and obfuscations. First, the president claimed the so-called reports were fake news. Then, he told Fox News that the intelligence was not credible enough to be in the PDB. Then the story changed again: If the intelligence was in the PDB, the White House said, his briefer didn’t bring it to Trump’s attention.
It wasn’t the first time the White House had thrown Sanner under the bus. (In an early May tweet, Trump blamed his briefer for not sounding alarmed when she first spoke to him about the novel coronavirus in January.) But if Sanner had been routinely derelict in her duties, why hadn’t Haspel removed or replaced her? And why hadn’t national security adviser Robert O’Brien — who, along with other top aides, receives the PDB daily and presumably reads it — gone into the Oval Office, shut the door and briefed the president himself?
The answer is simple. The president is unbriefable. He will not listen to anything he does not want to hear.