Intel Briefers Stopped Telling Trump about Russia

The President didn't want to hear about bad behavior from Moscow, so he wasn't told.

Jim Sciutto, CNN‘s chief national security correspondent, reports that “Trump’s resistance led intel agencies to brief him less and less on Russia.” This both confirms and expands upon recent speculation about the President’s knowledge of Moscow paying Taliban bounties to kill American soldiers.

President Donald Trump’s resistance to intelligence warnings about Russia led his national security team, including those who delivered the President’s Daily Brief to brief him verbally less often on Russia-related threats to the US, multiple former Trump administration officials who briefed Trump, were present for briefings and who prepared documents for his intelligence briefings tell CNN.

As the White House denies Trump was briefed about Russia placing bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan, which CNN has confirmed was included in the written PDB this spring, the question of what the President knew and when has moved to center stage. And it brings Trump’s aversion to hearing negative analysis about Russia into renewed focus.

Multiple former administration officials I spoke to for my upcoming book, “The Madman Theory: Trump Takes on the World,” which will be published August 11 by Harper Collins, paint a picture of a President often unwilling to hear bad news about Russia.

As always, I wonder why journalistic outlets allow their reporters to withhold information they are being paid to report on said outlets for months in order to sell books as a side hustle. (It’s perfectly reasonable, by contrast, for reporters to flesh out fully-reported stories with information that was offered to editors but didn’t make it to print.)

It is human nature for briefers to tailor their content for the known preferences of their target audience. This can be perfectly benign, simply feeding a principal information on topics they’re more interested in and de-emphasizing topics they’re less interested in. But it can also lead to shading information and confirmation bias.

Longtime CIA analyst Paul Pillar has documented extensively that, contrary to conventional wisdom, intelligence briefings have only a modest role in foreign policy decisionmaking. Presidents, cabinet secretaries, and other actors have their own biases and agendas through which they filter any new information.

To the point of today’s news, Pillar, who headed up the Middle East office of the National Intelligence Council during the run-up to the Iraq war, argues that President Bush and his key advisors tended to push aside any information that contradicted their convictions about Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi nuclear program and the briefings therefore either ignored the topic altogether or served to reinforce the drive to war.

Still, whatever else one thinks of Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, and other players, they were patriotic Americans trying to drive forward their vision for US national security. Having ideologies, agendas, and blind spots is one thing. Rejecting information about a country your own National Security Strategy describes as an adversary because you’re unwilling to confront anti-American behavior is quite another.

(As a sidebar, Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst who is now a first-term Democratic congresswoman, is furious about recent developments and contrasts them with how things were done in the Bush Administration.)

According to one former senior intelligence official, the President’s briefers had one simple rule with Trump: never lead with Russia.

Early in his term, Trump’s briefers discovered that when his oral briefing included intelligence related to Russia’s malign activities against the United States, including evidence of its interference in US politics, Trump would often blow up at them, demanding to know why they kept focusing on Russia and often questioning the intelligence itself, multiple former administration officials said.

“The President has created an environment that dissuades, if not prohibits, the mentioning of any intelligence that isn’t favorable to Russia,” a former senior member of Trump’s national security staff told me.

Now, as I’ve argued before, it’s the job of any President’s senior national security advisors to make him eat his spinach. His National Security Advisor, Director of National Intelligence, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State in particular would surely have gotten these briefings and owned it to him and the country to make him listen.

But one surely can’t blame career intelligence officers for giving the President what he wants. If nothing else, if they know he’ll blow up if they “lead with Russia,” it’s prudent to lead with something else to ensure that other priorities get attended to.

In response, his briefers — who must make difficult judgment calls every day on which intelligence to highlight to the President — reduced the amount of Russian-related intelligence they included in his oral briefings, instead often placing it only in his written briefing book, a document that is provided daily and sometimes extended to several dozen pages containing the intelligence community’s most important information.

But his briefers discovered over time that he often did not read the briefing book, leaving him unaware of crucial intelligence, including threats related to Russia and other parts of the world.

When asked about CNN’s reporting that Trump is resistant to intelligence warnings about Russia, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe told CNN, “this is totally false” in a statement Tuesday. Ratcliffe took the job in May.

We know that it’s completely true. It’s been documented again and again going at least back to the transition period.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Intelligence, National Security, Russia
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Teve says:

    Early in his term, Trump’s briefers discovered that when his oral briefing included intelligence related to Russia’s malign activities against the United States, including evidence of its interference in US politics, Trump would often blow up at them, demanding to know why they kept focusing on Russia and often questioning the intelligence itself, multiple former administration officials said.

    Well that certainly seems unimportant and something that we just shouldn’t bother thinking about.

    11
  2. DrDaveT says:

    But his briefers discovered over time that he often did not read the briefing book

    He would be no more likely to read it were it written in Swedish. Seriously, folks, how long have we known that Trump has a serious learning disability and that “reading” isn’t a thing for him?

    8
  3. Ben Starr says:

    What information on you suggesting the reporter withheld?

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    So now we’re down to the ‘he’s not a traitor, he’s just a moron,’ defense.

    Yes, he is a moron. But also yes, he is a traitor. It’s been bleedingly obvious literally for years. He is a traitor. He is owned by Vladimir Putin. Full stop.

    None so blind…

    26
  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Early in his term, Trump’s briefers discovered that when his oral briefing included intelligence related to Russia’s malign activities against the United States, including evidence of its interference in US politics, Trump would often blow up at them, demanding to know why they kept focusing on Russia and often questioning the intelligence itself, multiple former administration officials said.

    “The President has created an environment that dissuades, if not prohibits, the mentioning of any intelligence that isn’t favorable to Russia,” a former senior member of Trump’s national security staff told me.

    What did I say the other day about abusive relationships and how people will pick their battles, avoiding the ones they just can’t win? Yeah, nailed it.

    8
  6. Kathy says:

    If it were me, I’d want an investigation on just why crucial intelligence pertaining to the safety of troops under my command was not made known to me.

    But I’m not a petulant narcissist with a massive inferiority complex.

    7
  7. Raoul says:

    It is inconceivable that the president wasn’t briefed- what we are reading are ex post facto rationalizations sprinkled with CYA to create plausible deniability as to not further infuriate the president. Russians are having Americans killed and nobody tells the president? Please. The fact that Trump still denies it is and calls it an hoax is a tell.

    10
  8. Kingdaddy says:

    Still, whatever else one thinks of Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, and other players, they were patriotic Americans trying to drive forward their vision for US national security.

    I’m not sure I would use the word “vision” to describe being hell-bent on invading Iraq, blowing past all the safeguards, both institutional and normative, and then doing a lousy job post-invasion.

    17
  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Raoul:
    Exactly. They can’t lie about the PDB because too many people see it. So they have to fall back to, ‘Um, we didn’t show it to him because. . . let’s see, what conceivable excuse will the imagination-deprived, conventional thinkers in the punditocracy accept?’

    It can’t be that he’s a traitor because for four years the chin-strokers have assured us in condescending tones that it was something. . . something something something. . . but not actual, outright treason. Because, um, reasons. It’s never happened before therefore it can’t possibly be happening now, harumph harumph, chin-stroke chin-stroke.

    It’s not complicated: failing rich guy gets bailed out by loan sharks and now the loan sharks own him. How is that hard to understand?

    What’s next? Trump lives in a parallel timeline? Trump is his own evil twin? Putin is secretly working for the Illuminati? Can we get some Hillary sex-dungeon pizza to go with that?

    Trump is OWNED by Putin. That’s the answer. That’s the reality. It’s the only answer that fits the known facts. It’s been the only answer since the 2016 election. But hey, let’s keep searching until we find an alternate answer that doesn’t make the pundit class look like fucking idiots.

    18
  10. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US” was included in the PDB delivered to Bush43 in August of ’01. The brief warned of “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for a hijacking” of U.S. aircraft.” It was, to use the Trump’s administrations own word’s, “unverified intelligence”. Some time after the Twin Towers were levelled, Bush43 said that if he

    “…had any inkling whatsoever that the people were going to fly airplanes into buildings we would have moved heaven and earth to save the country.”

    Even being generous and neglecting Trump’s obvious obsequiousness to Russia and Putin — what the Trump Administration is saying is that they are uninterested in “any inkling”. They are saying that they are not interested in the possibility of stopping the deaths of US soldiers unless, and until, they have rock solid, verifiable, evidence…perhaps, as in the case of 9/11, until after it has actually happened.

    Yes…I believe Trump fits the definition of a Russian asset; whether wittingly, or unwittingly. Most likely he is simply an extremely “useful idiot” that Putin can easily manipulate. As can Xi, Erdogan, MBS, and Kim.
    But on a far more basic level, and giving Trump every possible benefit of the doubt; the man is fundamentally unfit for the office he holds. He is incapable of performing the very basics of the job, e.g. reading the Daily Brief. And our soldiers (as well as COVID stricken citizens) likely have died, and will continue to die, because of it.

    8
  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: And you can and do read, so it wouldn’t have become a problem or issue for you in the first place.

    @Kingdaddy: 😀 😛

    2
  12. DrDaveT says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    So now we’re down to the ‘he’s not a traitor, he’s just a moron,’ defense.

    And the next question to Trump needs to be “So now that you do know, what are you going to do about it?” Put the squeeze on him.

    8
  13. JohnSF says:

    We can all see how reluctant Trump is to take any actions detrimental to relations with Russia at best, detrimental to Russia at worst.
    That is, either he’s either delusional about relations with Russia, triggered by his catalogue of Russia related stories, or plain owned.

    But, here’s the thing that doesn’t fit.

    Nordstream.

    Trump has continued the US policy of pushing back hard in Europe against the Russian gas pipeline northern route to W. Europe.
    That at least doubles Gazprom capacity i.e. an extra 40 billion dollars per year minimum.

    And Gazprom is Putin’s largest cash cow.
    I suspect that Kremlin interest in Nordstream makes a lot of other issues look marginal by comparison.
    Why hasn’t Trump shifted policy on Nordstream?

  14. Kathy says:

    The other thing: trump has certainly been briefed on the matter now.

    So, what is he going to do about it?

    No mystery: absolutely nothing.

    Having dismissed it as “fake news”, he has no choice left now but to double, triple, and quadruple down on it, even if Putin holds a press conference where he publicly awards cash prizes to lucky Taliban who’ve killed US or allied troops.

    3
  15. CSK says:

    @JohnSF:
    Trump may see that as more of a way of punishing Germany.

    3
  16. JohnMcC says:

    @JohnSF: Saudi Arabia. MBS.

    2
  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JohnMcC:
    Yep. It’s complicated when you’re in hock to two loan sharks. You have to give your Russian mob sharks everything you can give them without pissing off your Arab sharks, and vice versa.

    “Hey, I trashed NATO for you, Vlad, and I promise I’ll get you back in the G7, don’t break my legs! I need them to shuffle down ramps!”

    5
  18. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’ll predict this: within a year of Trump’s removal the Russians will admit they owned him. Putin’s an egomaniac, he won’t be able to resist claiming credit for the greatest intelligence coup in world history.

    11
  19. Teve says:

    The White House would like you to believe that America’s intelligence agencies are so incompetent that they couldn’t “verify” the Russian bounty payments to kill American troops, when half of Afghanistan knew about it a year ago. The New York Times needed just five days to track down the guy handing out Russian cash, but somehow the CIA and military couldn’t work it out for two straight years. That is really the story they’re going with here. Because Donald Trump is stupid, and the people around him know he’s stupid, and they’re desperately hoping that you are also stupid and will believe any stupid nonsense they put out there.

    “We always act in the best interest of our troops, but this is unverified still at this very moment,” White House Liar Kayleigh McEnany told reporters yesterday, even as National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien was briefing the Gang of Eight on GRU wires of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to Taliban agents.

    wonkette

    2
  20. gVOR08 says:

    @JohnSF: I don’t know why Trump opposes Nordstream, but I suspect a list of Gazprom’s competitors and their lobbyists would give us a pretty good clue.

    1
  21. JohnSF says:

    @JohnMcC:
    If e were talking oil, could be, maybe.
    Not re. gas.
    Saudi share of EU gas market virtually zero.
    Unlike Qatar, the Saudi’s have invested virtually nothing in the LNG infrastructure required.
    (Qatar has about 5% share of EU imports; Russia 20%, Norway 30%; EU imports c. 75% of total gas demand)

    And oil can’t substitute for gas in the European market.
    MBS doesn’t have a hand in this particular game.

    1
  22. DrDaveT says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Putin’s an egomaniac, he won’t be able to resist claiming credit for the greatest intelligence coup in world history.

    He’s a KGB egomaniac. I suspect that all of the people he cares about already know, and that’s enough for him.

    I’d be more interested in when we get the first US intelligence officials publicly asserting that Putin owns Trump…

    3
  23. JohnSF says:

    @gVOR08:
    Maybe the Norwegians got to him. LOL.

    More seriously, the US gas industry has put a lot of money into LNG plant.
    And facing a glut market in Europe where IIRC they were hoping to expand sales.

    But if Trump is THAT much in Putin’s thrall, would US LNG outweigh the Russian interest?

  24. gVOR08 says:

    Now, as I’ve argued before, it’s the job of any President’s senior national security advisors to make him eat his spinach.

    True enough. But if they know the baby won’t ever eat his spinach? And he won’t do anything about it anyway? And the baby can fire his nannies? And the new nannies will be even bigger sycophants who will tell him even less? I recall stories about both FDR and Obama taking steps to encourage accurate information. In the end the president creates the atmosphere and sets the rules.

    You note, James, that you can’t blame the career briefers for giving the baby what he wants. The administration contains grifters, careerists, and dedicated civil servants. We can’t tell which is what because in the end Trump makes them all behave the same. That’s purely Trump’s fault.

    12
  25. James Joyner says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    I’m not sure I would use the word “vision” to describe being hell-bent on invading Iraq, blowing past all the safeguards, both institutional and normative, and then doing a lousy job post-invasion.

    There was no clear vision—indeed, seemingly a competing set of visions within the core team—about what was going to happen post-invasion. Rumsfeld and his team clearly thought we were going to hand the keys to Ahmad Chalabi or some other friendly figure and go home.

    But, hell, Iraq was hardly the first time the President and his team stumbled their way into a quagmire against all manner of warnings from the intelligence community, Congress, and academic experts.

    My point here is that Trump and his team are doing it not only recklessly but apparently without regard for the US national interest. One couldn’t reasonably make that charge for Obama in Libya, Bush in Iraq, or Johnson in Vietnam.

    3
  26. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08:

    You note, James, that you can’t blame the career briefers for giving the baby what he wants. The administration contains grifters, careerists, and dedicated civil servants. We can’t tell which is what because in the end Trump makes them all behave the same. That’s purely Trump’s fault.

    Trump deserves the lion’s share of the blame for all the obvious reasons. But, at some point, his senior appointees have a duty to the country that supercedes their loyalty to Trump. They’re not living up to that duty.

    5
  27. JohnMcC says:

    @JohnSF: Wow! Thanks for that reminder. I just jumped to the keyboard with strong memories of amazing glowing orbs and such. You are right; petroleum isn’t in the game. I think I recall reading that a sort of super-LNG carrier ship was being … built? designed? …. with the idea that American (fracked) natural gas would be shipped to northern Europe. It wasn’t in connection with the pipeline you’re referring to; it was in ref to ship design. But a synapse is struggling to be heard somewhere along that line.

    In any case, the relative glut of American fracked natural gas has something to do with it. Dollars to donuts.

    1
  28. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Worth mentioning that not only has Trump ignored the bounty on our soldier’s heads…he has also gifted Putin an invitation to the G7…and the withdrawal of half of our troops from Germany.

    4
  29. JohnMcC says:

    @James Joyner: Well there certainly was a controlling ‘vision’ for post- debathification Iraq. The best minds of a generation were recruited and wrote a constitution for Iraq making it a libertarian paradise. Under Mr Paul Bremer. Under Pres GWBush. Enforced by American bayonets. Post invasion Iraq was just a small bite but the taste was what we’ve learned to call Trumpian. From the same kitchen.

    1
  30. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:
    Not to excuse those people, but if you try to tell Trump something he doesn’t want to hear, and his face turns purple and he sticks his fingers in his ears and starts screaming, as he apparently does, then why bother? It would be all pro forma with no substantive result.

    1
  31. JohnSF says:

    @JohnMcC:
    Yes; as I said after, a lot of money gone into LNG facilities, and the gas market in EU is in glut.
    My suspicion would be there are enough connections high up in Republican pols/cabinet/megadonors to make sure their interests can’t be overridden.

    Some interesting history waiting to be written, perhaps.

    1
  32. An Interested Party says:

    But, at some point, his senior appointees have a duty to the country that supercedes their loyalty to Trump. They’re not living up to that duty.

    They’re only following in his footsteps, as his loyalty to himself supercedes his duty to the country…

  33. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @gVOR08: BOOM! Gazprom is about business. Where there is business, there political favors and graft are available–at least in Trumpworld.
    […]

    But, at some point, his senior appointees have a duty to the country that supercedes their loyalty to Trump their own interests. They’re not living up to that duty.

    FTFY
    ETA: I see interested party beat me to it. Oh well…

  34. DrDaveT says:

    @gVOR08:

    I recall stories about both FDR and Obama taking steps to encourage accurate information. In the end the president creates the atmosphere and sets the rules.

    You remind me of one of my favorite quotes from a fantasy novel. Speaking to a prince who is about to become king, and who is about to hear testimony about exactly how and why his younger brother died, Our Hero says:

    You set the path for your future court even now, prince. If you discourage men from speaking unpalatable truths in front of you, I trust you will develop your skill for sifting through pretty lies, for you will spend the rest of your reign, however short, wading in them.

    — from The Hallowed Hunt, Lois McMaster Bujold

  35. senyordave says:

    The idea that the GOP gives a shit about anything other than power is ludicrous. Imagine if this had happened while Obama was president. This story would be 24/7 on conservative radio and Fox news. Hearings would be starting soon in either chamber that the Republicans controlled. Benghazi was a thing for a couple of years, and that was essentially bullshit.
    Trump’s Covid-19 response will be the main campaign issue, but I think this story will make a nice secondary issue. The POTUS didn’t care enough about US troops to pay attention to something that endangered them, or is so fragile his own people kept the story from him. Either Trump doesn’t care or Trump is a feeb. IMO it is a little bit of both. But he sure as hell shouldn’t be commander-in-chief. And I hope they pull some ads together and frame it that way.

    1
  36. An Interested Party says: