U.S. intelligence officials “struggled” to brief a suspicious, insecure, and often distracted Donald Trump when he was in the White House, according to a new account published by the CIA’s academic center.
For the intelligence community, the Trump transition was “far and away the most difficult in its historical experience with briefing new presidents,” retired intelligence officer John Helgerson wrote in a recently released chapter on Trump in the book “Getting to Know the President,” published by the CIA for U.S. officials. The book, initially published by the CIA in 1996, is updated after each new administration.
Trump “doubted the competence of intelligence professionals and felt no need for regular intelligence support,” according to Helgerson.
That attitude was particularly problematic given Trump’s lack of experience in any branch of government or the military — a unique situation since presidential intelligence briefings began in 1952.
It was also complicated by his aversion to reading, according to Helgerson.
Trump, by his own admission, “did not often read,” Helgerson wrote. Intelligence officials also determined that Trump “doesn’t really read anything” and “doesn’t read much; he likes bullets,” he noted.
It could also be difficult to hold the attention of the easily distracted president, according to the accounts.
James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, recalled that Trump was “prone to fly off on tangents; there might be eight or nine minutes of real intelligence in an hour’s discussion,” Helgerson reported.
Though presidents are often briefed daily, Trump was soon receiving just two 45-minute briefings a week — and he skipped them entirely after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, according to Helgerson. By contrast, Vice President Mike Pence “was an assiduous, six-day-a-week reader” of briefings who made an effort to try to keep Trump focused, according to the account.
The intelligence community from the start was pushed back on its heels by Trump’s affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, until then considered an adversary to the U.S.
Beginning with the campaign, Trump often lauded Putin and his opinions while attacking America’s own intelligence community. He even publicly called on Russia to “find” Hillary Clinton’s emails during their 2016 presidential campaign. Emails related to her campaign were subsequently hacked.
“The most problematic aspect of the 2016 transition for the intelligence community — one that carried over into the Trump presidency — was the emergence of the Trump team’s contacts with Russian officials as a domestic issue in the United States,” Helgerson noted.
Trump frequently attacked CIA and FBI officials as intelligence officials investigated links between his presidential campaign and Russian election interference — which Trump repeatedly blasted as a “witch hunt.
After Trump’s victory, his team fired officially designated transition staff and tossed out extensive materials that had been prepared by the departing Obama administration, Helgerson reported.
In fact, the Trump team “was not fully prepared to launch transition operations, apparently having not expected to win the election,” Helgerson wrote.
Trump’s official relationship with the intelligence community got off to a bad start just days after he took over the presidency when he delivered a self-involved speech in front of the wall of fallen heroes at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
Ignoring the memory of those who had sacrificed their lives for the nation, Trump accused the media of lying about the size of his inauguration crowd and slammed journalists as “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”
Former CIA Director John Brennan said at the time that he was “deeply saddened and angered at Donald Trump’s despicable display of self-aggrandizement in front of CIA’s Memorial Wall of Agency heroes.”
Ryan Crocker — a retired diplomat who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq and was on the scene for Trump’s comments at the CIA — told The New Yorker in a 2017 interview that he was “appalled” by the remarks.
“Whatever his intentions, it was horrible,” said Crocker. “As he stood there talking about how great Trump is, I kept looking at the wall behind him — as I’m sure everyone in the room was, too. He has no understanding of the world and what is going on. It was really ugly.”