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Gap continues to widen between Trump and intelligence community on key issues

CIA Director Gina Haspel and former director John Brennan leave the Capitol Rotunda after paying their last respects to former president George H.W. Bush on Dec. 4. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

President Trump continues to reject the judgments of U.S. spy agencies on major foreign policy fronts, creating a dynamic in which intelligence analysts frequently see troubling gaps between the president’s public statements and the facts laid out for him in daily briefings on world events, current and former U.S. officials said.

The pattern has become a source of mounting concern to senior U.S. intelligence officials who had hoped that Trump, as he settled into office, would become less hostile to their work and more receptive to the information that spy agencies spend billions of dollars and sometimes put lives at risk gathering.

Instead, presidential distrust that once seemed confined mainly to the intelligence community’s assessments about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election has spread across a range of global issues. Among them are North Korea’s willingness to abandon its nuclear weapons program, Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions, the existence and implications of global climate change, and the role of the Saudi crown prince in the killing of a dissident journalist.

Asked about the CIA assessment that Saudi's crown prince ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump said the CIA didn't make a determination. (Video: The Washington Post)

“There is extraordinary frustration,” a U.S. intelligence official said. The CIA and other agencies continue to devote enormous “time, energy and resources” to ensuring that accurate intelligence is delivered to Trump, the official said, but his seeming imperviousness to such material often renders “all of that a waste.”

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White House officials disputed the contention that Trump is uninterested in intelligence assessments.

“The President receives regular briefings and takes counsel from his national security advisors, including the CIA Director,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement. “Whether it was deciding to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, standing up to Iran’s malign activities, or a host of other actions, the President makes decisions based on a full spectrum of information.”

After initially warning of "severe punishment" for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump issued a statement defending Saudi Arabia. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, said that Trump “remains an active and regular consumer of intelligence. Any notion that the President and his National Security team are not fully engaged in the [President’s Daily Brief] is false and clearly not based on direct knowledge.”

But U.S. officials involved in interactions with the White House said that the disconnect between spy agencies and the president is without precedent and that senior analysts have spent the past year struggling to find ways to adapt to an arrangement they described as dysfunctional.

Many have taken to writing “for the record,” officials said, meaning they generate reports to document intelligence community warnings on North Korea, Iran and other subjects.

Briefings of Cabinet officials have taken on new urgency, officials said, because Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others are seen as influential on policy issues and potential conduits to the president.

The President’s Daily Brief (PDB), a document that for decades has been drawn up specifically for the commander in chief, “has become more important for Cabinet-level officials than the president,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who until earlier this year was involved in drafting such documents. The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Officials said there are areas where Trump’s views are more closely aligned with those of the intelligence community, including on Chinese aggression in Asia and online, and the threat posed by Islamist terrorist groups.

But for every area of agreement, there are examples of significant disparity. Trump, for example, asserted in June that because of his administration’s negotiations with Pyongyang, there is “no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” U.S. intelligence officials said there is no such view among analysts.

Trump accused Iran of violating a 2015 nuclear agreement with the United States and other major powers despite assessments by U.S. spy agencies and allies that Tehran was in compliance. More recently, Trump has claimed that his decision to abandon the nuclear deal forced Iran into regional retreat and led to turnover in the top ranks of its government. “They’re a much, much different group of leaders,” he said in June.

But CIA assessments do not describe any such shift, officials said, noting that Iran’s religious rulers remain firmly entrenched and that the country continues to use proxies to fuel conflict across the Middle East.

Perhaps most notably, Trump has repeatedly undercut the agency’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.

The agency reached that conclusion with “medium-to-high confidence,” terms that reflect a high degree of certainty. But Trump has described the CIA as having vague “feelings” on Mohammed’s culpability, and when pressed on whether he thought the crown prince gave the order, the president said, “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.”

By contrast, senior lawmakers emerged from a session last week with CIA Director Gina Haspel saying the case against Mohammed was overwhelming. “There’s not a smoking gun — there’s a smoking saw,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said, referring to the alleged dismemberment of Khashoggi’s corpse.

In response to inquiries from The Post, Haspel said in a statement that “President Trump has demonstrated a deep interest and appreciation for intelligence. He asks hard questions and challenges assumptions. As I have seen time and again, he takes into account a range of input, including CIA assessments, when deliberating policy decisions.”

The Trump administration has cultivated a close alliance with Riyadh, and even Cabinet officials have seemed to skew their characterizations of the Khashoggi case to avoid contradicting the president.

Mattis and Pompeo both said there was “no direct reporting” linking Mohammed to Khashoggi’s killing, carefully worded statements that seemed aimed at casting doubt on the degree of certainty conveyed by U.S. intelligence reports.

Trump came into office denouncing the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential race, a case that has only grown stronger with evidence gathered by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Trump’s handling of the matter has been a much greater source of dismay inside the intelligence community than widely understood. One official said CIA employees were staggered by Trump’s performance during a news conference with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin in Helsinki this summer at which he treated denials by Putin as so “strong and powerful” that they offset the conclusions of the CIA.

“There was this gasp” among those watching at the CIA, the official said. “You literally had people in panic mode watching it at Langley. On all floors. Just shock.”

The disorienting impact of such statements has rippled beyond CIA headquarters even to stations overseas, where intelligence operatives have struggled to comprehend Trump’s characterization of developments abroad.

“I think you definitely do see a bewilderment and a concern over the president’s conduct and relationship to the intelligence community,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who frequently visits with senior CIA officials on overseas trips.

Trump’s disagreements are not driven by “questions about their methodology or differing interpretations of the same facts,” Schiff said. “He wants to tell an alternate narrative.”

All presidents make policy decisions that run counter to input from U.S. intelligence agencies. But officials said Trump goes beyond exercising his authority to reject such advice by attacking the accuracy of the underlying information.

Seeking to bolster support for his plan to build a wall along the southern U.S. border, Trump has made claims about migrants — including that they are harboring terrorists and, as he tweeted Tuesday, bringing “large scale crime and disease” — that are not grounded in available intelligence, officials said.

Trump has frequently noted blunders by U.S. spy agencies, particularly in the run-up to the Iraq War. He has also been dismissive of other experts in his administration, saying his own instincts are superior. “I have a gut,” he said in an interview last month, “and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.”

Trump’s defenders said his relationship with the intelligence community (IC) has improved over the past year, in part because of the departure of leaders who had held senior jobs under President Barack Obama.

“The president had understandable reservations about the IC,” said Fred Fleitz, a former intelligence officer who served in the White House under national security adviser John Bolton for several months this year.

“The good news is that Mike Pompeo and John Bolton have been resolving this problem and restoring the president’s confidence in the IC,” Fleitz said.

Bolton is a voracious consumer of intelligence reports but rarely sits through sessions with his designated briefer the way his predecessor, H.R. McMaster, did, officials said. Bolton’s approach has raised concern among some that the intelligence community’s access inside the White House has been further diminished.

But Fleitz said the opposite is true because of Bolton’s appetite for intelligence and habit of relaying material of interest to Trump.

The president is “getting the PDB, but Bolton basically is giving him vast amounts of intelligence throughout the day,” Fleitz said. “I think he’s getting most of it from what Bolton is able to recount for him.”

From the start of Trump’s presidency, the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence began streamlining the PDB, reducing it to a collection of bullet points and images or graphics. U.S. officials have made additional adaptations over the past two years.

They generally refrain from sending analysts who are deep experts on a specific subject, instead dispatching generalists for meetings with a president whose attention tends to wander.

Analysts have learned to emphasize economic issues that resonate with Trump and to employ eye-catching graphics. Even so, briefers often return from the White House voicing concern.

“Either it doesn’t resonate or there is a lack of comprehension,” the U.S. official said. “You feel frustration and helplessness in a way. What else can you do?”

John Hudson, Julie Tate and Shane Harris contributed to this report.