But convention left the premises a long time ago with President Trump, and his demonstrated approach to national security and intelligence suggest that a more purposeful decision must be made about providing intelligence to this soon-to-be former president.
My recommendation, as a 30-plus-year veteran of the intelligence community, is not to provide him any briefings after Jan. 20. With this simple act — which is solely the new president’s prerogative — Joe Biden can mitigate one aspect of the potential national security risk posed by Donald Trump, private citizen.
For four years, as president, he has received — or had opportunity to receive — every single piece of information and analysis that the intelligence community produced, regardless of compartment or classification. It is hard to overstate the value of what he has read and heard.
His post-White House “security profile,” as the professionals like to call it, is daunting. Any former president is by definition a target and presents some risks. But a former president Trump, even before the events of last week, might be unusually vulnerable to bad actors with ill intent. He leaves, unlike his predecessors who embraced the muted responsibilities of being a “former,” with a stated agenda to stay engaged in politics and policy. No departing president in the modern era has hinted at or planned on becoming a political actor immediately after leaving office.
In addition, Trump has significant business entanglements that involve foreign entities. Many of these current business relationships are in parts of the world that are vulnerable to intelligence services from other nation-states. And it is not clear that he understands the tradecraft to which he has been exposed, the reasons the knowledge he has acquired must be protected from disclosure, or the intentions and capabilities of adversaries and competitors who will use any means to advance their interests at the expense of ours.
I do not make this recommendation casually. It is based on my deep understanding of threats to national security, on decades protecting our people and interests overseas, and my experience deploying technical means to counter our adversaries.
I also have personal experience with the president: I briefed him many times, participated in scores of meetings with him as his principal deputy director for national intelligence. While I resigned my position in 2019, this is not a personal grievance. As an intelligence professional, I have gone out of my way not to judge his policy or personal actions publicly. This is an intelligence assessment born of my years of experience.
Either way, before Trump departs, the intelligence officials should have the conversation — as they do with all outgoing presidents — about the risks every president faces simply because of what he has already seen or told. He leaves office with knowledge of some of our most precious intelligence assets in his head.
They need to stay there. And all exiting presidents need to be reminded of that.
There is good news here. No new policy needs to be established to make this decision. Neither past position nor past clearance is the basis for access to classified information — the “need to know” is. Trump will not warrant access simply because he was the president, and he cannot assert need to know for himself. He has to be granted it.
And there is the beauty of the system. If sharing classified information with him serves the nation’s purpose at some point in the future, he will get exactly the information the new president decides. Just like everyone else.