The stay of former President Donald Trump in the Oval Office represented an odyssey, as he did not take the daily briefing seriously. In this regard, senior intelligence officers have endorsed in private President Joe Biden’s decision to restrict his predecessor any access to confidential information
The White House has proposed to prevent ex-President Donald Trump from getting access to intelligence reports, for fear of him leaking classified information or using it as a political tool. High-ranking intelligence officers agree on such decision, as appears from an investigation conducted by ITEMP Project.
For senior intelligence officers, the stay of former President Donald Trump in the Oval Office represented an odyssey due to the efforts at making him take seriously the daily briefing.
One month after President Trump’s departure, some intelligence sessions have emerged, where the experts had no option but to resort to drawings and animation in order to attract the President’s attention to a key issue, according to a former officer at the White House, ITEMP Project quoted.
The President’s Daily Brief (PDB) is a daily summary of high-level, all-source information and analysis on national security issues produced for the US President and key cabinet members and advisers.
During his four-year term as commander in chief, Trump showed little interest in the PDB or any other routine briefing, some Trump’s ex-aides conceded. Since 1946, such briefing has helped US presidents get insight into global events from the first day of their inauguration.
Denying an ex-president any access to classified materials sets a precedent that could apply to any other future outgoing president, and this further politicizes decision making in key matters for the Nation, according to half a dozen former national security officers under the governments of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
“For the first time in history, a former president has been denied intelligence information; it is an unpleasant precedent for that matter, yet it is probably a timely decision. President Trump has not proved to be that sensible and this does not inspire the necessary confidence one should have,” admitted a senior officer who worked for three years with President Trump, asking not to be identified by name.
The decision of the new administration did not take the former officer by surprise. “It is more than likely that it was not easy to determine. The point is that it sets a precedent that could take its toll on Biden or any other future president at the end of their incumbency.”
The next president after Biden “may opt not to share intelligence information with Biden as an ex-president, simply because he will be 80 years old and he is really aged for that matter,” the senior officer noted.
In the meantime, the intelligence community is to complete its regular process in case any former US president, including Trump, may request classified information, Susan Meisner, spokeswoman of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), told ITEMP Project.
“The intelligence community has an established process for providing intelligence support to former US presidents, and we follow that process whenever a request is made,” Meisner said.
Former US presidents also keep on receiving reports, although different from the classified daily briefing provided to the current president. Such briefing has been granted by the current president to the old president partly a matter of respectful convention and partly to seek any advice, according to Julian Barnes, a national security reporter for The New York Times covering the intelligence agencies.
The CIA team that reports to ex-presidents is not the same briefing team of the current president, wrote John L. Helgerson in Getting to Know the President: Intelligence Briefings of Presidential Candidates. Helgerson was CIA Inspector General from 2002 until his retirement in 2009.
None of Barack Obama’s spokespersons replied to ITEMP Project when queried if the ex-president continued receiving intelligence information during the four-year term of Trump as the occupant of the White House. Notably, all those years, Trump embarked on stigmatizing and dismantling the legacy of his predecessor.
During an interview last February 5, President Joe Biden opined that Trump should not get access to classified information in form of briefing because of his “erratic behavior,” even before the attacks on the Capitol on January 6. President Biden also feared that his predecessor could imprudently disclose sensitive information.
In the worst-case scenario, critics said, ex-President Trump could share classified information with his creditors in exchange for benefits, or with the Russian Government, which he never criticized during strategic decision making in the areas of national security and foreign policy.
Still another risk, feared not only in the White House but also by some officials of the previous administration, is the potential release of information by Trump in order to erode the current government.
“Should Trump see some decisions that could undermine the interest of the United States, he could use it to attack Biden, that is for sure,” a former member of the intelligence community said.
In early November 2020, when Biden’s victory was consummated after the extensive vote count and despite President Trump’s claims of fraud, former national security and intelligence officers suggested the incoming president that his predecessor should be no more entitled to receive classified information after leaving the White House on January 20.
Briefing ex-presidents is partly a token of courtesy, but they could also continue involved in essential foreign policy matters, said Douglas H. Wise, Deputy Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2014-2016.
However, there is no law or prerogative of mandatory briefing for former US presidents.
One week in advance to an interview with Norah O’Donnell of CBS News, including President Biden’s opinion on intelligence briefing, ITEMP Project consulted some of the White House staff and members of Parliament about a possible decision to veto the delivery of classified reports to ex-President Trump. However, spokespersons of the Executive Office, including the National Security Council (NSC), delayed their responses.
No comments were made on scores of e-mails and phone calls to find the reasons and arguments for such a possible decision by President Biden; as a result, the investigation report was not released as originally scheduled.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, advised that any query into President Trump’s future access to classified information, or to any other information requested by his former aides, should be submitted to the NSC.
Few days before President Biden’s appearance on TV, ITEMP Project made unsuccessful attempts at approaching at least half a dozen Republican members of the intelligence committees of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The most outspoken stance was taken by the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and vice-chair of the Democratic Caucus, Mark Warner (VA). The congressman bluntly refused the delivery of any national security information “to anyone soliciting assailment on the US Capitol.”
“Senator Warner personally is not in favor of granting continuing access to intelligence reports to anyone who solicited assailment on the US Capitol and faced charges for it. However, the Senate Intelligence Committee has no control over this subject; therefore, the decision goes to the current president,” a spokesman of Warner told ITEMP project.
While President Biden did not announce any official decision to prevent his predecessor from the briefing, he is entitled to deny access to intelligence information to anyone, in his sole discretion.
Warner’s remarks were tantamount to saying that Trump’s control over the US security apparatus for four years entailed a security risk, as warned by The Washington Post.
The incoming president has not an obligation to provide intelligence products to any former president. A simple step could be cutting off any access by Trump to intelligence information.
Another, still better option could be the enforcement of regular standards for the access to classified information; that is, same standards applied to all US citizens before any security-related authorization, advised Wise, the former IDA Deputy Director.
Just drawings and few words
The President’s Daily Brief is coordinated and delivered by the ODNI with contributions from the CIA as well as other elements from the Intelligence Community, and has been presented in some form to the president since 1946.
Upon the arrival of the New York tycoon at the Oval Office, veteran intelligence community officers had a difficult time to persuade President Trump into the essence of such materials for strategic decision making.
Intelligence experts during the previous administration who spoke with ITEMP Project on condition of anonymity agreed on saying that President Trump never recognized, accepted or digested the briefing.
“Firstly, he did not read; secondly, he got bored. He was not a mature user; he was like a child; he lacked the appropriate attention, and that caused troubles,” admitted a former officer at the White House.
“In some meetings –he recalls– Trump just read the first two lines and said: ‘Oh, that’s outrageous! Things are doing really bad!’ And all ended up like that. He did not pay attention to the themes and just wanted to talk.”
Over the years, the President Daily Brief has evolved to meet the needs and preferences of each president and has expanded to include more information. In 2014, the PDB transitioned from a print product to electronic delivery (iPad), at the request of President Barack Obama.
Up to the very last minute, Trump’s Administration focused on various and didactical ways of delivery of information, to such an extent that videos started to be included in the PDB.
“Instead of giving a paper for him to read or a hard copy, three videos were presented to President Trump. Some micro-videos on the point at issue, including figures and images; quite the opposite to a sober briefing,” said the former White House officer.
“Should we discuss a key issue on Iran and construction of missiles, the President was shown a drawing of a missile, including arrows and lines. It was sort of TV show of three- or four-minute length in order to catch his attention and for him to absorb the information,” said the high-ranking officer who attended for months the delivery of sensitive information on nations designated as hostile to the United States.
Some other times, information on Russia was provided to President Trump, “and since he was organically opposed to believe negative information on Russia, that proved to be ineffective.”
The experts confided that sometimes their success in elaborating on certain data for the president to capitalize on it was a matter of concern. They even wondered who could be able to attract the president’s attention once in a while.
Both the Cabinet and the intelligence community clearly understood that any regular or special report should be provided by someone with an enormous clout on President Trump.
“Loyalty” sweetened with empathy was an essential requirement of Trump for his senior officers during his four-year term at the White House. According to him and his staff, this could signify a potential breach of federal bureaucracy and even the law.
The “Trumpist” principle never fit in the vast US intelligence community, which has abstained for years from falling into the tentacles of politization. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a paradigm shift under Trump.
Once, a discussion sparked up with regard to the reporting on a significant national security matter, the former White House officer said without further detail for lack of authorization. Incidentally, President Trump took issue with the Cabinet over their interpretation of the subject.
“The discussion focused on ascertaining the most appropriate person to expound the subject and it was determined that, not a Cabinet member, but an assistant to one of them was the most effective one to raise the subject to the president.”
“Even though this outsider had neither the rank nor the position, he successfully made the presentation,” the source admitted.
Sue Gordon, the former Principal Executive of National Intelligence, recommended President Biden in an op-ed released on The Washington Post not to provide President Trump with any briefing after January 20.
“No departing president in the modern era has hinted at or planned on becoming a political actor immediately after leaving office,” she warned. And, to the mind of the 30-plus-year veteran of the intelligence community, this is one of the highest risks.
First thing that people know behind closed doors is that President Trump did not take much care of intelligence briefings. In any event, he did not read it. “But Donald Trump has a curious, tricky personality,” the former presidential aide reasoned. “So, as he has been denied access now, he will wish to read and receive it.”