Intel officials walk tightrope on Trump briefings
Government officials must weigh a long list of considerations before making the precedent-breaking decision to exclude former President Trump from receiving intelligence briefings.
President Biden made clear that he doesn’t think his predecessor should receive the reports typically given to former presidents.
“I just think that there is no need for him to have the intelligence briefings. What value is giving him an intelligence briefing? What impact does he have at all, other than the fact he might slip and say something?” Biden said in an interview with CBS News.
The White House has since said the final call will rest with intelligence officials, who must evaluate the risk versus the reward of Trump having access to closely guarded state secrets.
Nixing the briefings for Trump would remove a perk of being in the club of former presidents, who are occasionally called upon to help their successors.
“Presidents of the modern era have allowed former presidents to have access to briefings largely because it’s helpful to themselves to be able to get advice or bounce ideas off of them,” said David Priess, a former CIA officer who gave briefings during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and wrote a book on presidential daily briefings.
“It’s really helpful to call on past presidents because no one knows what it’s like to make those kinds of decisions except former presidents,” he added.
Presidents have reached out to their predecessors for advice on arms deals and help negotiating abroad. Even President Nixon, who resigned from office, was sought out by multiple presidents for advice on China and Russia, Priess said.
But things are different with Trump.
“All that reasoning goes out the window with Trump because there’s no chance Biden is going to call Trump for advice on national security affairs. There’s no chance he’s going to call on Trump as an emissary. And Trump showed so much disdain for the norms around the presidency that not giving him the courtesy of briefings doesn’t seem as egregious,” Priess said.
Trump has not yet asked for the briefings, but there’s growing consensus among former intelligence community members, including some who worked under Trump, that the former president should not have regular access to classified material.
Still, it remains a divisive issue for Biden, who has preached a message of unifying the country.
“President Trump is obviously a highly controversial figure, particularly given his role in the events of Jan. 6, so I think there’s plenty of basis if President Biden chooses to deny him access to a clearance,” said Jamil Jaffer, founder and executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University who previously served as senior counsel to Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee.
“The problem for Biden is that it sets a precedent going forward. And what you don’t want is presidents denying their predecessors access to classified information if they disagree with them politically or the like,” Jaffer continued.
Sue Gordon, who was principal deputy director of national intelligence during the first two years of the Trump administration, has argued against regular briefings for her former boss, arguing he should only receive intel on a “need to know” basis when it advances national security interests.
That approach would avoid taking any punitive measures, she said, but also stop the automatic sharing of intelligence.
She said Trump, like other people, should be evaluated on whether they have a “history of understanding and attending to the importance of the information to which they’ve had access.”
As with other clearance considerations, the government should evaluate the president’s business and personal connections, Gordon said, adding that intelligence officials must also weigh Trump’s position and how he could be targeted by adversaries.
“It’s not just about what you intend to do or what you intend to share or how you intend to act,” Gordon said. “As soon as you had this former president say, ‘I might want to run for future office,’ as soon as you see his actions on Jan. 6. — There is influence beyond the presidency that is really attractive to those that might try to undermine the U.S. If they can shape how he uses that influence, that then becomes worrisome.”
“Are you careful? Are you entangled? And is your profile one that makes you especially useful? And in each one of those bins you’d want to make a purposeful decision for this former president, but you ought to do it with anyone,” she said.
Priess said Trump has already demonstrated a history of being cavalier with classified information, from sharing classified intelligence with the Russian ambassador and journalist Bob Woodward to reviewing footage of a North Korean missile launch during a dinner at Mar-a-Lago with then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while club members sat nearby.
Jaffer said even in cases where the government may want to share intel with Trump, it’s not clear how it might be used.
“There are times you might want to tell a former president or world leader, ‘Hey, that’s a KGB officer. They might look like a CEO, but they are actually a KGB officer,’” he said, referring to Russia’s famed former spy agency.
But that might cut differently with Trump, who has a history of dismissing the work of U.S. intelligence agencies.
“The question of information that is shared with him is if he believes it or not and if he acts on it or not in the same way you’d expect other government leaders to,” Jaffer said.
“Which way does that cut with the former president? If he knows they are a representative of X government or Y government, does it make him more or less likely to accept it? We don’t know. His penchant might be ‘Vladimir is right, and my government might be wrong,’” he added.
Priess said even as Biden has kicked the decision to intelligence officials, there’s little likelihood their assessment will differ from the president’s.
“That’s a distinction without a difference,” he said. “The president is ultimately the leader on this, and he may choose to tell intelligence leaders they can decide. But he already made his view clear.”
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