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Trump's refusal to pay attention during briefings leaving intelligence officials 'extraordinarily frustrated'

US president allegedly continues to reject advice on matters of foreign policy from spy agencies

Greg Miller
Thursday 13 December 2018 11:42 GMT
Donald Trump's meeting with top Democrats descends into chaos in the Oval Office

Donald Trump continues to reject the judgments of US spy agencies on major foreign policy fronts, current and former US officials said, 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.

The pattern has become a source of mounting concern to senior US intelligence officials who had hoped Mr Trump 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 murder of a dissident journalist.

"There is extraordinary frustration," a US intelligence official said.

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

White House officials disputed the contention Mr 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 spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

"Whether it was deciding to move the US 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."

Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, said Mr 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 PDB (president's daily brief) is false and clearly not based on direct knowledge."

But US officials involved in interactions with the White House said 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 describe 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 secretary of defense Jim Mattis, secretary of state Mike Pompeo and others are seen as influential on policy issues and potential conduits to the president.

The 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 US intelligence official who until earlier this year was involved in drafting such documents.

The official, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Officials said there are areas where Mr 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 terror groups.

But for every area of agreement, there are examples of significant disparity. Mr 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." US intelligence officials said there is no such view among analysts.

Mr Trump accused Iran of violating a 2015 nuclear agreement with the US and other major powers despite assessments by American spy agencies and allies that Tehran was in compliance.

More recently, Mr Trump has claimed his decision to abandon the nuclear deal had 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," the president said in June.

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

Perhaps most notably, Mr Trump has repeatedly undercut the agency's assessment that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder 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 Mr Trump has described the CIA as having vague "feelings" on Mr Bin Salman's culpability, and when pressed on whether he thought the crown prince gave the order, 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 Mr Bin Salman was overwhelming.

"There's not a smoking gun - there's a smoking saw," senator Lindsey Graham said, referring to the alleged dismemberment of Khashoggi's corpse.

In response to enquiries, Ms Haspel said in a statement Mr Trump "has demonstrated a deep interest and appreciation for intelligence".

"He asks hard questions and challenges assumptions," she added. "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 characterisation of the Khashoggi case to avoid contradicting the president.

Mr Mattis and Mr Pompeo both said there was "no direct reporting" linking Mr Bin Salman to Khashoggi's killing, carefully worded statements that seemed aimed at casting doubt on the degree of certainty conveyed by US intelligence reports.

Mr 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 Mueller.

Mr 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 Mr Trump's performance during a news conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki earlier this year in which Mr Trump treated denials by the Russian president as so "strong and powerful" they offset the conclusions of the CIA.

"There was this gasp" among those watching at 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 Mr Trump's characterisation 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 representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the house intelligence committee, who frequently visits with senior CIA officials on overseas trips.

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

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

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Seeking to bolster support for his plan to build a wall along the southern US border, Mr Trump has made claims about migrants - including that they are harbouring terrorists and, as he tweeted on Wednesday, bringing "large scale crime and disease" - that are not grounded in available intelligence, officials said.

Mr Trump has frequently noted blunders by US 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."

Mr Trump's defenders said his relationship with the intelligence community has improved over the past year, in part because of the departure of leaders who had held senior jobs under 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 earlier 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," Mr Fleitz said.

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

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

Mr Trump is "getting the PDB but Bolton basically is giving him vast amounts of intelligence throughout the day," Mr Fleitz said. "I think he's getting most of it from what Bolton is able to recount for him."

From the start of Mr Trump's presidency, the CIA and DNI began streamlining the PDB, reducing it to a collection of bullet points and images or graphics. US 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 emphasise economic issues that resonate with Mr 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 US official said. "You feel frustration and helplessness in a way. What else can you do?"

The Washington Post

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