U.S. President Donald Trump, flanked by Senior Advisor Jared Kushner (standing, L-R), Vice President Mike Pence and Staff Secretary Rob Porter welcomes...
JONATHAN ERNST

When it comes to intelligence briefings, ‘the president likes maps’

Updated
All is not well at the National Security Council. The New York Times reports today, for example, that some NSC staffers wake up, check Twitter, read Donald Trump’s latest missives, “and struggle to make policy to fit them.”

That’s alarming, but it’s part of a broader mess. The Times’ report also noted that NSC staffers are “kept in the dark about what Mr. Trump tells foreign leaders in his phone calls”; aides are departing quickly and “leaving a larger-than-usual hole in the experienced bureaucracy”; and there’s widespread uncertainty about what the White House wants and expects.

All of this, of course, follows Trump’s order that gave Stephen Bannon, the strategist best known for running a right-wing website, a seat on the NSC, which is unprecedented.

But the tidbit that stood out for me in the Times’ piece was this gem:
[W]hile Mr. Obama liked policy option papers that were three to six single-spaced pages, council staff members are now being told to keep papers to a single page, with lots of graphics and maps.

“The president likes maps,” one official said.
It sounds a bit like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, intended to make the president appear dim, but in this case, it’s apparently real.

It’s also consistent with previous reporting on the matter. A month before the president took office, there were reports that Trump only receives one security/intelligence briefing per week, instead of seven. He didn’t deny the accounts, but said it didn’t matter because he’s “like, a smart person.” Trump added, “I get it when I need it.”

The week of Trump’s inauguration, the Republican added that he likes to have short briefings, with information on one page. “I like bullets or I like as little as possible,” he said.

Intermixed with the bullets, the president also reportedly wants “lots of graphics and maps.”

How many actual words will fit on one page with bullets, graphics, and maps is unclear.

Circling back to our previous coverage, Barack Obama liked to read daily intelligence briefings and pose follow-up questions in writing. Bill Clinton had a similar approach. George W. Bush, during his two terms, changed the briefing process, preferring oral reports from intelligence professionals.

Trump, apparently, has in mind something akin to Powerpoint slides.

This may seem funny, but it’s also unsettling. These briefings are the intelligence community’s mechanism for bringing key information about national security to the Oval Office. When the person behind the desk effectively says, “Just give me some maps, graphics, and bullet points,” it creates a dynamic in which the president becomes even more reliant on people like his National Security Advisor – in this case, the highly controversial Michael Flynn – for relevant information about potential threats.

Trump is inclined to look past niceties such as details and nuance, relying instead on his inner circle to fill in the gaps. No good can come of this.

Postscript: The Times noted that its reporting was based on conversations “with more than two dozen current and former council staff members and others throughout the government.” In case this isn’t obvious, that’s an enormous number of people who are, evidently, eager to talk about the mess Trump and his team have created.

Donald Trump and White House

When it comes to intelligence briefings, 'the president likes maps'

Updated