As regular readers may recall, Donald Trump has long taken an interest in the presidential daily intelligence briefing. In fact, in 2014, he seemed convinced that Barack Obama wasn’t taking the national-security briefings as seriously as he should.“Fact – Obama does not read his intelligence briefings,” Trump complained, making up details that in no way reflected reality. Around the same time, Trump added, “Obama has missed 58% of his intelligence briefings” – which, again, was completely untrue.
All of this seemed quite ironic when, during Trump’s presidential transition process, he skipped nearly all of his intelligence briefings. Asked why, the Republican told Fox News in December 2016, “Well, I get it when I need it… I don’t have to be told – you know, I’m, like, a smart person.”
As his inauguration drew closer, Trump acknowledged that he likes very short intelligence briefings. “I like bullets or I like as little as possible,” he explained in January 2017.
Intelligence professionals have gone to great lengths to accommodate the president’s toddler-like attention span, preparing reports “with lots of graphics and maps.” National Security Council officials have even learned that Trump is likely to stop reading important materials unless he sees his name, so they include his name in “as many paragraphs” as possible.
It’s against this backdrop that the Washington Post had this remarkable report this morning:
For much of the past year, President Trump has declined to participate in a practice followed by the past seven of his predecessors: He rarely if ever reads the President’s Daily Brief, a document that lays out the most pressing information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies from hot spots around the world.
Trump has opted to rely on an oral briefing of select intelligence issues in the Oval Office rather than getting the full written document delivered to review separately each day, according to three people familiar with his briefings.
Sometimes, a report can be both important and not surprising in the least.
The article added that he made clear months ago that he’s “not interested in reviewing a personal copy of the written intelligence report known as the PDB, a highly classified summary prepared before dawn to provide the president with the best update on the world’s events.” The president’s reluctance to read the intelligence materials, the article went on to say, “could hamper his ability to respond to crises in the most effective manner, intelligence experts warned.”
Well, yes, that makes sense. The trouble is, Trump has a lot of cable news to watch and golf to play, so we’ll all have to adjust our expectations accordingly.
Indeed, many (including me) have marveled at the fact that this president seems to ignore U.S. intelligence and instead believes whatever nonsense he happens to see via conservative media, and the reason why is starting to come into sharper focus: he’s not actually reading what intelligence professionals prepare for him.
Maybe the president gets what he needs from oral interactions with intelligence professionals? Maybe not.
Leon Panetta, a former CIA director and defense secretary for President Barack Obama, said Trump could miss important context and nuance if he is relying solely on an oral briefing. The arrangement also increases pressure on the president’s national security team, which cannot entirely replace a well-informed commander in chief, he said.
“Something will be missed,” Panetta said. “If for some reason his instincts on what should be done are not backed up by the intelligence because he hasn’t taken the time to read that intel, it increases the risk that he will make a mistake.”
Part of the problem may stem from the fact that Trump, by his own admission, doesn’t like to read because he doesn’t think he has to. The Republican told the Washington Post in July 2016 that he believes he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense.”
Last summer, the Post had a piece on White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, noting that one of the three-star general’s challenges is “holding the attention of the president.”
Specifically in reference to the war in Afghanistan, the article added, “even a single page of bullet points on the country seemed to tax the president’s attention span on the subject.”
A Trump confidant said at the time, “I call the president the two-minute man. The president has patience for a half-page.”
Is it any wonder the PDB goes unread?