President-elect Donald Trump has received two classified intelligence briefings since his surprise election victory earlier this month, a frequency that is notably lower – at least so far – than that of his predecessors, current and former U.S. officials said.
A team of intelligence analysts has been prepared to deliver daily briefings on global developments and security threats to Trump in the two weeks since he won. Vice President-elect Mike Pence, by contrast, has set aside time for intelligence briefings almost every day since the election, officials said.
Officials involved in the Trump transition team cautioned against assigning any significance to the briefing schedule that the president-elect has set so far, noting that he has been immersed in the work of forming his administration, and has made filling key national security posts his top priority.
But others have interpreted Trump’s limited engagement with his briefing team as an additional sign of indifference from a president-elect who has no meaningful experience on national security issues and was dismissive of U.S. intelligence agencies’ capabilities and findings during the campaign.
A senior U.S. official who receives the same briefing delivered to President Barack Obama each day said that devoting time to such sessions would help Trump get up to speed on world events.
“Trump has a lot of catching up to do,” the official said.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a senior member of Trump’s transition team, dismissed the issue, saying that Trump has devoted significant attention to security matters even while meeting with world leaders and assembling his administration.
“National security is Donald Trump’s No. 1 priority and I think he’s taking it very seriously,” Nunes said in an interview. “Look how many leaders he’s met with, how many phone calls he’s done, positions he’s filled. People who are being critical need to get a life.”
Trump was given an initial briefing within days of his election victory, and took part in a second session with senior U.S. intelligence analysts Tuesday in New York before he departed to Florida for the Thanksgiving holiday, officials said. Trump turned other briefing opportunities away.
A spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence, the office that oversees the production of the daily presidential brief, declined to comment. Spokesmen for the Trump transition did not respond to requests for comment.
The President’s Daily Brief, as the classified document is known, is designed to provide a summary of key security developments and insights from all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, as well as an update on covert programs being run overseas by the CIA. It is typically delivered each morning by intelligence analysts selected because of their experience and expertise for the prestigious job.
The contents are among the most closely guarded secrets in Washington, but it is likely that recent versions of the brief covered developments including the resumption of Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria and the disruption of an alleged Islamic State terrorism plot in France.
The briefings have for decades been made available well before Inauguration Day to newly elected presidents as a way of deepening their understanding of foreign developments. Spy agencies are also eager to cultivate a relationship with the executive who will serve as their most important customer and set their priorities for the next four years.
Former intelligence officials and experts said that presidents-elect have adopted varied approaches to how and when the daily brief is delivered, but that Trump is getting fewer than most at this stage.
“His pace is not as frequent as most recent presidents-elect, but it is not unprecedented over the decades-long scope of these briefings,” said David Priess, a former CIA officer and PDB briefer during the George W. Bush administration.
After his election in 2008, President Obama took part not only in regular intelligence briefings but also scheduled “deep dives” on key subjects including Iran’s nuclear program and covert CIA operations, including the accelerating campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan.
“During the transition, President Obama was an avid consumer of intelligence,” said retired Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, who was CIA director when Obama was elected.
President George W. Bush’s first briefing was delayed until Dec. 5 because of the Florida election recount. But Bush, whose father had served as CIA director, asked for daily briefings for the remainder of the transition.
President Bill Clinton got his first post-race briefing on Nov. 13, 1992 – 10 days after the election. He received daily intelligence briefings almost every working day of the rest of the transition time in Little Rock
“The last three presidents-elect used the intelligence briefings offered during the transition to literally study the national security issues that they would be facing and the world leaders with whom they would be interacting as president,” said Michael Morell, former deputy CIA director, who supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
“The president-elect is missing out on a golden opportunity to learn about the national security threats and challenges facing our nation,” Morell said, “knowledge that would be extremely valuable to have when he takes the oath of office and when he steps into the Situation Room for the first time.”
Richard Nixon was the first president-elect to be offered the PDB after his win in 1968, but he is regarded by many as among the newly elected commanders in chief most hostile toward the CIA, routinely spurning agency analysts.
Priess, author of “The President’s Book of Secrets,” said Nixon refused to sit down with CIA briefers during the transition. To try to get the document to Nixon, intelligence officials resorted to dropping sealed copies of the PDB each morning with Nixon’s secretary.
After Nixon’s inauguration, his aides returned the briefing books still in their unopened envelopes, Priess said.
Nixon, however, met several times during the transition with then-CIA Director Richard Helms, and had significant background in global affairs and U.S. intelligence capabilities, having served eight years as vice president to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Trump has yet to meet with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper or other top intelligence officials – aside from an unofficial meeting with embattled Adm. Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, who is rumored to be a top candidate to replace Clapper. Trump has greeted a parade of other officials auditioning for Cabinet positions, but also met with Indian business partners, television news anchors and figures in the entertainment industry.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Greg Miller, Adam Entous