Well, that takes chutzpah.
President Obama is criticizing President-elect Donald Trump for failing to attend what The Post calls “the most exclusive, and arguably most important, daily meeting in Washington” — the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) — warning his successor that without the daily intelligence brief, “you are flying blind.”
This coming from the same person who skipped more than half of his daily intelligence briefings in his first term. As I reported in this space in 2012, during his first 1,225 days in office, Obama attended his daily meeting to discuss the PDB just 536 times — an attendance record of 43.8 percent. In 2011 and the first half of 2012, his attendance dropped even lower, to just over 38 percent of the time.
Talk about flying blind.
Derek Chollet, a former senior official in the Obama administration, accused Trump of “malpractice” for skipping the same intelligence briefing his former boss regularly skipped, declaring “I think it is totally irresponsible in a post-9/11 world.”
Not only did Obama commit the same malpractice, Obama used the same excuses as Trump to justify it. For example, Trump’s advisers have argued that he gets briefed by many sources and meets regularly with his national security team, including retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn. That is precisely the same line of argument the Obama White House used in 2012, when then-National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told me in an email “this focus on just the PDB and not the countless other NSC meetings the President has each week really misses the point. For example, the President had a briefing with the Principals Committee to review 9/11 threats and mitigation efforts on September 10th. Seems like a relevant data point for your piece.”
So Obama could rely on other national security briefings, but Trump cannot?
Trump’s critics have also mocked him for saying that he did not need to attend daily intelligence briefings because “I’m, like, a smart person.” As Obama put it this month, “It’s a big, complicated world. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.” But back in 2012, his NSC spokesman told me that Obama could forgo his daily intelligence meetings, and simply read written reports, because he was “among the most sophisticated consumers of intelligence on the planet.” (Translation: He’s, like, a smart person). Indeed, skipping the in person briefing was a point of pride for the Obama White House. “Unlike your former boss [George W. Bush],” Vietor wrote, Obama “has it delivered to his residence in the morning and not briefed to him.”
Obama was so smart, he did not need briefers.
Both Obama and Trump are wrong. They do need briefers. And the intelligence community needs direct interaction with the president as much as the president needs direct interaction with the intelligence community. As I explained in 2012, “According to former officials who have detailed knowledge of the PDB process, having the daily meeting — and not just reading the briefing book — is enormously important both for the president and those who prepare the brief. For the president, the meeting is an opportunity to ask questions of the briefers, probe assumptions and request additional information. For those preparing the brief, meeting with the president on a daily basis gives them vital, direct feedback from the commander in chief about what is on his mind, how they can be more responsive to his needs, and what information he may have to feed back into the intelligence process. This process cannot be replicated on paper.”
Trump told Chris Wallace he skipped the briefing because “I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.” If he meets with his intelligence briefers every day, he won’t get told the same thing, in the same words, every single day — because his briefers will tailor the PDB to fit his needs. Former CIA director Michael Hayden recalled that with Bush “there was rich give and take, so that not only did the president get the advantage of knowing the analysts’ innermost thoughts, but [the analysts] also were able to leave the room understanding what the president believed he needed in order to make the kind of decisions he had to make.”
Under Obama, the intelligence community had to settle for reduced access. And the results are there for all to see. In his second term, Obama continued to miss the majority of his daily intelligence meetings — posting a 41.26 percent attendance record through Sept. 29, 2014. If Obama had spent an hour a day with his intelligence briefers, perhaps he would not have dismissed the Islamic State as the “JV squad” in January 2014 and mistakenly declared that they were not “a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.” Since then, the Islamic State has spread from Iraq and Syria to Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.
Yes, intelligence briefings matter.
Trump seemed to agree in 2012, when he tweeted out my Post column on Obama’s dismal PDB attendance record, declaring “Priorities — while fundraising and campaigning on our dime, Obama has skipped over 50% of his intel briefings.” Now, Trump is attending the briefing with even less frequency than Obama.
Of course, Trump is not yet commander in chief. Perhaps he will take the PDB more seriously once he comes face to face with the awesome responsibilities of keeping the country safe. In his Fox interview, he suggested that might be the case. Let’s hope so.