The U.S. intelligence community faced "greater challenges" in briefing former President Trump than it had confronted in almost five decades, when President-elect Nixon was taking office, according to a new account published by the CIA's internal research center.
As was well-documented during his time in office, Mr. Trump's tense relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies worsened amid politically charged investigations into his campaign's contacts with Russia, leading to a "badly strained" rapport early in his presidency, former CIA officer Robert Helgerson writes in an update to his book, "Getting to Know the President."
It was first published in 1996 and is a running historical account, dating back to the Truman administration, of how the intelligence community briefs newly elected presidents. Its latest chapter includes insights from the senior intelligence officials who oversaw the pre-election briefings offered to the presidential candidates in 2016, as well as briefings during the presidential transition and the delivery of the President's Daily Brief (PDB) throughout Trump's presidency.
"For the Intelligence Community, the Trump transition was far and away the most difficult in its historical experience with briefing new presidents," Helgerson says. "Trump was like Nixon, suspicious and insecure about the intelligence process, but unlike Nixon in the way he reacted. Rather than shut the [intelligence community] out, Trump engaged with it, but attacked it publicly," he writes...
... The latest installment of the book, a 40-page account, details Mr. Trump's first ever briefing, which took place in August 2016 at the FBI field office in New York City. Mr. Trump, then still the Republican presidential nominee, was "primarily a listener," the document says, "reflecting the fact that the material was new to him." At his second briefing in September, Mr. Trump asked "numerous questions," many of which "reflected his interest in financial and trade matters and in press reports about Russia's reported interference in the U.S. election campaign," the account says.
The briefings during the transition were led by a group of 14 intelligence officials hand-picked by Ted Gistaro, a veteran CIA analyst who later served as former President Trump's briefer. They hailed from the CIA, FBI, State Department and other agencies, and were the "largest and most organizationally diverse group of experts ever deployed for transition briefings," according to the document.
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Overall, Mr. Trump's briefings began with a delay, because his team "was not fully prepared to launch transition operations, apparently having not expected to win the election," Helgerson writes.
And while the earliest sessions were substantive, they could also be meandering, according to former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, who said Mr. Trump "was prone to fly off on tangents; there might be eight or nine minutes of real intelligence in an hour's discussion."
Mr. Trump's already charged relationship with the intelligence community took a turn for the worse after he was briefed on the contents of a dossier - whose most salacious claims have since been discredited - that was compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Despite efforts by Clapper to explain that the intelligence community had not relied on the dossier to arrive at its assessments of Russia's 2016 election interference - and had not leaked the document to the media - Trump remained unpersuaded and embittered.
"Gistaro recalled that when they met for their next PDB briefing session, Trump ‘vented for 10 minutes about how we [the IC] were out to destroy him.' Gistaro did not believe that Trump ever accepted subsequent IC disavowals of responsibility for the dossier," Helgerson writes, using an abbreviation for "intelligence community."