Intelligence agencies told to keep Donald Trump’s briefings short and without nuance

Classified memo reveals guidance for dealing with the President

Rachael Revesz
New York
Thursday 16 February 2017 16:42 GMT
The President used to receive briefings from Michael Flynn
The President used to receive briefings from Michael Flynn

Donald Trump is definitely receiving classified intelligence briefings - but they are much shorter and less complex than those presented to past Presidents.

According a classified memo obtained by Mother Jones, agents who compiled the President’s daily briefing on global security threats were advised to keep it short and without nuance.

The briefing given to the President covers no more than three topics, with about one page per issue. That is a quarter of what former President Barack Obama received and also less information than other predecessors. It also contains room for a short update about matters presented in other briefings.

The Office of the Direction of National Intelligence, which is responsible for producing the daily briefing, did not respond to The Independent.

The guidance states that topics should be presented from one viewpoint in all briefings, which means the President is not presented with conflicting views from one day to the next. The New York Times previously reported that Mr Obama was presented with conflicting views, and preferred option papers that were between three and six single-spaced pages.

The daily briefing is independent of the National Security Council, on which Steve Bannon sits. It is prepared by US intelligence agencies and is typically either handed over and presented to the President themselves or given to the President via a national security adviser.

Donald Trump says he doesn't need daily intelligence briefings as President because he's 'smart'

Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, was forced to resign this week after it was revealed he had held calls with the Russian ambassador last year to reassure them about sanctions and had misled Vice President Mike Pence about it. Mr Flynn would have been responsible for handing over and often presenting the briefing, and discussing it with the President afterwards. He has been replaced by retired Army General Joseph Kellogg Jr.

David Priess, a former CIA official and author of The President's Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America's Presidents From Kennedy to Obama, told The Independent that there would be no use in producing a 20-page report every day if Mr Trump did not want to read it.

"On the issue of the briefing's length, it varies widely - there were some Presidents who received just one or two pages but there were times when it was dozens of pages," he said.

"Having a shorter briefing than other Presidents is not alarming. The main point is that the intelligence community tailors the format and presentation to the style and preference of each person in the Oval Office."

Trump receiving intelligence briefings from 'number of sources'

Over the last few months, Mr Trump has disparaged the intelligence community, dismissing reports from the FBI and CIA that Russia exerted a "campaign of influence" on the election to spread fake news and sabotage Hillary Clinton. Mr Trump said he respected the CIA during his first pit stop as President to the agency’s headquarters, but spent most of the speech in front of the memorial wall talking about the crowd size at his Inauguration.

Mr Priess told The Independent that there were few Presidents who did not have some level of tension with the intelligence community. It was "outright toxic" under Richard Nixon, he added.

"But in terms of it [Trump’s relationship with intelligence] being played out in public, that is unusual," he said.

Former CIA official Paul Pillar, who served during the Obama administration, told Mother Jones that Mr Obama was given reports that were typically between 12 and 14 pages, with videos, maps and charts, which he tended to read on a tablet. He would write down follow-up questions, a strategy that was similar to Bill Clinton.

George W Bush reportedly liked oral reports from professionals.

President-elect Trump said in December that he did not need daily intelligence briefings.

"I don't have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years," he said.

The same month, Fox News reported he was getting one briefing per week, instead of seven.

Mr Trump said: "I get it when I need it."

In January he told Axios: "I like bullets or I like as little as possible. I don't need, you know, 200-page reports on something that can be handled on a page. That I can tell you."

The Obama administration left Mr Trump two things: nearly 1,000 pages of classified material on North Korea, Isis, the South China Sea disputes and other threats, as well as a hand-written letter from Mr Obama.

Mr Trump commented several times on the "beautiful letter" but it was not clear whether he or his team had read the 275 briefing papers.

He was also criticised for allegedly attacking Nordstrom on Twitter for dropping his daughter’s fashion line 21 minutes after a White House briefing was officially supposed to start.

Mr Priess disputed the accuracy of the claim, as he said the White House schedule was not always followed to the letter, and briefings in person could last less than 20 minutes.

"There’s a myth that intelligence exists in a bubble and nothing can happen outside of it. Many Presidents have phoned foreign leaders during a briefing," he said.

How Mr Trump handles a briefing and what he does throughout, "is the prerogative of the President", he added.

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