When Trump was given the prized “President’s Daily Brief,” containing all the espionage goodies, he merely “touched it. He doesn’t really read anything,” confided his main briefer, a career CIA analyst named Ted Gistaro. Trump was “‘fact free’ — evidence doesn’t cut it with him,” explained former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper.
John L. Helgerson, the study’s author and a career intelligence officer, served as CIA inspector general from 2002 until his retirement in 2009. The CIA history surveys intelligence briefings for presidential and vice-presidential candidates back to 1952. It was published internally in October by the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence and then declassified.
The Trump relationship began smoothly enough. He gave a “thumbs up” following his first briefing as a candidate in August 2016. He wasn’t ready for briefings immediately after his victory in November, “apparently not having expected to win the election,” Helgerson says, and mostly avoided them before Inauguration Day, receiving only 14 briefings during the 10-week transition.
The crackup began before the inauguration, after Trump was briefed on Russia’s election meddling on Jan. 6, 2017. The intelligence chiefs “discussed the role of very senior Russian officials, including President [Vladimir] Putin, in authorizing and managing the operations,” explains Helgerson. The evidence “was so solid that no one on the Trump team disputed the findings,” he says. Gistaro, the briefer, recalled that “Trump listened respectfully.”
Then, FBI Director James B. Comey took Trump aside to brief him on the dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele at the behest of the Clinton campaign. That document has now been largely discredited, and even at the time, neither the FBI nor major newspapers had been able to confirm key details. But that didn’t stop Comey from unloading the unreliable gossip, anyway.
Trump was never the same. At his next briefing with Gistaro, he “vented for 10 minutes about how we were out to destroy him” and asked in a tweet “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” CIA Director John Brennan, meanwhile, gratuitously described Trump’s behavior during a visit to the agency’s headquarters as “repugnant” and called his views on Iran the “height of folly.” Even Brennan’s supporters found the director’s behavior “perplexing,” Helgerson notes.
The mess that followed between Trump and the intelligence community helped derail his presidency. Given what we now know about the dossier, you can’t help but wonder whether this story might have gone a bit differently if Comey had deferred.
Helgerson’s portraits of other politicians contain fresh insights. President George W. Bush was a “demanding consumer” who wanted to know the “blood and guts” of intelligence operations. In Bush’s first pre-election briefing on Sept. 2, 2000, a Middle East specialist “explained his assessment that the next president would face a terrorist attack on US soil.” Ominous words, more than a year before 9/11, but Bush didn’t heed the warnings.
President Barack Obama was “a careful reader” who wanted to be briefed daily through the transition, even on Thanksgiving. Clapper tried to give him special “expert briefings,” but “fifty percent were yawners,” according to a participant quoted by Helgerson.
Vice presidents and also-rans also get a nod. Vice President Dick Cheney requested a special “behind the tab” supplement to the PDB to answer his special queries. Vice President Mike Pence was briefed every weekday during the transition, even on his son’s wedding day. Pence liked his briefers so much that when he left office, he invited seven of them to his house for a special farewell party.
There’s an upstairs/downstairs aspect to the briefers’ assessments of their clients. John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, was overheard before a briefing saying “get it over with quick and we can go and have a pizza.” Sarah Palin, the 2008 nominee for vice president was surprisingly, “an attentive and appreciative interlocutor.” Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, was predictably “gracious, reserved and statesmanlike” and a person who “left his politics at the door,” Helgerson writes.
And what about President Biden? Helgerson notes that, as vice president-elect in 2008, “he impressed the briefers as very knowledgeable about the subjects addressed,” and posed “a number of difficult questions” on which he requested more information. “Sleepy Joe,” not!
The CIA briefers served all comers, to a fault. It’s jarring to read that in 1968 the agency briefed independent presidential candidate George Wallace, an avowed racist. To the agency, he was a potential “customer,” like all the rest.
What does the CIA like in a president? The agency would disavow any political bias, of course. But one clear theme that emerges is that intelligence briefers like working for people who take them seriously. Like most of us, they don’t like to be dissed.