UPDATE: In April 2021, 10 months after The New York Times, Associated Press and Washington Post reported on U.S. intelligence that Russia had offered secret bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans, the Biden administration said that CIA analysts only have “low to moderate confidence” that the bounty program ever existed.
WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s interest in taking intelligence briefings has been declining steadily since his first months in office and has dropped to near zero in recent weeks, according to a HuffPost review of all of his daily schedules.
Trump went from a high of 4.1 briefings per week on average in March 2017 to 0.7 per week since July 1, shortly after it became public that he had ignored intelligence reports about Russia offering bounties to the Taliban for each American soldier killed in Afghanistan.
Monday’s briefing, in fact, was the first in August and the first since July 22. That month had only three briefings scheduled.
“It’s remarkable that, even at their peak, they never exceeded 20 per month,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and a spokesman for the National Security Council during the Obama administration.
“And now that they are arguably more important than ever, as foreign actors are again interfering in our democracy, tensions with Beijing are swirling, and America’s adversaries and competitors are becoming more emboldened, the president can’t seem to find the time to be briefed,” he added.
Briefings from intelligence community officials are based on a package of report summaries from around the world prepared in the pre-dawn hours each morning specifically for the president. The sessions are among the few responsibilities in the modern presidency that cannot be delegated to others.
Both of Trump’s immediate predecessors took daily briefings in the White House. Republican George W. Bush typically had his shortly after his arrival in the Oval Office at 6:45 a.m. each day. Democrat Barack Obama had the written material, known as the “President’s Daily Brief,” loaded onto his iPad by 6 a.m. each day, when he would read it prior to the in-person session later in the morning.
Trump, by contrast, rarely gets to the West Wing before noon after spending much of each morning watching television and posting tweets based on his viewing. He displayed a diligence toward intelligence briefings only briefly, upon first taking office. In March 2017 he had 18 scheduled briefings on the 23 available weekdays. In April 2017, he had 17 briefings on the 20 available weekdays.
But starting that May, right after he fired FBI Director James Comey for failing to end the investigation into the assistance his campaign received from Russia, the frequency of his briefings fell dramatically. Up until that day, May 9, Trump had taken 54 intelligence briefings in his 110 days in office, an average of 3.4 per week. In the 1,200 days since then, he has received 281 briefings, an average of only 1.6 per week.
White House officials for years have denied that Trump has been getting briefings more and more infrequently, insisting that the public schedule does not always reflect the briefings he receives. They have declined to explain why some briefings wind up on the public schedule but not others.
On Tuesday, though, White House communications director Alyssa Farah said: “The president is briefed on critical intelligence daily by his national security adviser, his career CIA briefer, and/or his chief of staff. He also takes part in full formal presidential intelligence briefings near weekly or every other week with the CIA director, national security adviser, director of national intelligence, White House counsel, and usually the secretary of treasury, secretary of state, and sometime the secretary of defense in person in the Oval Office.”
“Trump has demonstrated time and again that he’s not one to put America’s national security first.”
Trump himself, asked about intelligence briefings in a recent interview with Axios, called the reports of the Russian bounties “fake news,” that they had “never reached” his desk, and that he does read the PDBs and is regularly briefed.
“I read a lot. I spend a lot of time at meetings. Usually it’s once a day or at least two or three times a week, intelligence meetings,” Trump said.
One former top White House aide, asked on condition of anonymity whether Trump actually took more intelligence briefings than were reflected on his public schedules, began laughing aloud. The aide’s reaction was the same when asked whether Trump reads the intelligence briefing books prepared for him.
Trump’s last national security adviser, John Bolton, has stated publicly that Trump does not read his intelligence briefing book and that making him absorb information was a difficult challenge.
“He’s just not receptive to new facts,” Bolton told CBS News last month. “The intelligence briefings don’t communicate as much information as they should. We tried to think of ways to change that. I think it was probably a doomed effort.”
Trump’s engagement on intelligence has become a major issue in his reelection bid, after reports earlier this year that he ignored warnings in his PDBs in January that a pneumonia-like virus was spreading in China. Trump did not have a briefing on his schedule until Jan. 6, a week after Taiwanese authorities raised the alarm with U.S. officials about an epidemic on the mainland.
He then spent more than two months downplaying the virus and praising China’s dictator for his great work and “transparency” in controlling the coronavirus, even as it had gained a foothold in the United States and was spreading across the country.
Months later, first The New York Times and then other outlets reported that Trump had ignored intelligence that Russia was paying rewards of up to $100,000 per American soldier murdered in Afghanistan. Trump has called those reports “a hoax” and “fake news” and acknowledged that he has never raised the issue with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in the numerous phone calls they have shared this year.
“Whether it’s ignoring the impending pandemic or looking the other way in response to Moscow’s bounties on our service members, Trump has demonstrated time and again that he’s not one to put America’s national security first,” Price said. “Especially when doing so comes into conflict with what’s best for him politically.”