Donald Trump has no interest in hearing the same thing twice—especially if it’s something he didn’t want to hear in the first place. In an interview with Fox News Sunday that aired over the weekend, the president-elect proudly proclaimed that he is receiving high-level intelligence briefings only once a week, instead of daily, as is tradition for incoming and sitting presidents. “You know, I’m a smart person,” Trump told Chris Wallace by way of explaining why he’s delegated the job of receiving the Presidential Daily Brief to Vice President-elect Mike Pence. “I don’t have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years.”
Setting aside what Trump is implying about the intelligence of the man he chose to be his second in command, his comments were somewhere between incredibly depressing and abjectly terrifying for those of us who would prefer the next leader of the free world not to actively avoid expert analysis, particularly on matters of national security and geopolitics. But is he right about the repetitiveness of the briefings?
First, some background. The daily brief—sometimes known as “the book” or “the daily book” in government parlance—is the compilation of high-level intelligence that is put together by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for the president each day, and which is also shared with the president-elect. It contains classified information and analysis, both from hot spots around the globe and about national security threats at home. It is one of the most tightly controlled daily documents in the world; in some past administrations, only two or three people were allowed access to it. Trump’s decision to ignore the brief on most days is a remarkable decision by an incoming president—albeit not a completely unprecedented one (see: Nixon, Richard).
So what of Trump’s claim that the briefs are, well, too boring to be worth his time? Since the information is classified, it’s impossible to say for certain whether they are actually as repetitive as Trump appears to believe they are. Still, there is good reason to doubt Trump’s assessment (beyond the usual reasons to doubt any of Trump’s assessments).
David Priess, a former CIA official and author of The President's Book of Secrets, a detailed history of presidential intelligence briefings, told me that the presidential briefings are tailored to meet the needs and preferences of the sitting president. John F. Kennedy, for instance, preferred things kept short and sweet, which is why he requested and received a pocket-size bulletin—known then as the President’s Intelligence Checklist, or the “Pickle” for short—with the major intelligence takeaways for that day. Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush preferred to be briefed in person on most days, and so they both received the information in face-to-face meetings with intelligence officers. Jimmy Carter liked to take notes right on the page, and so his briefs were printed out with lots of white space on the margins for him to write in. And Obama prefers a digital read, and so he gets a detailed brief on a secured iPad.
Indeed, it is the intended audience of the current briefs—President Obama, not President-elect Trump—that may explain why the ones Trump has seen are apparently too repetitive for his subjective tastes. “President Obama has been getting this for the past 7-and-a-half years—a lot of it is going to be running threads that go back days, months, or even years,” Priess explained. “And there might be some slight movements that might not mean much to [Trump] but could mean much more to the president who has been following that thread closely.” What Trump sees as a bug, then, is a feature in Obama’s world, according to Priess. By seeing how the intelligence on a topic changes in increments, Obama gets a more complete picture and has the chance to press those doing the briefing to explain the rationale behind any changes.
A second former intelligence officer who spoke on background went further in pushing back against Trump’s claim that little in the brief changes from one day to the next. “There are continuing themes but never the same briefing and always something different,” the former official said. The daily briefing, this person added, is by far the best, most easily digestible product the intelligence community produces, as well as the most interactive—assuming, of course, the briefee engages with the material and the briefer on a regular basis, something Trump has made clear he has little interest in doing.
Trump may feel differently about the briefings after he is sworn in. “When he’s president, he can get it in any format he wants—and if he doesn’t want repetition, there won’t be repetition,” said Priess, who interviewed every living former president for his book. Starting next month, then, President Trump could be reading briefs comprised entirely of 140-character bullet points if that’s what he wants. In that case, it would up to the individual briefers to make sure the most crucial information finds Trump even if Trump is trying to look the other way. “They’ll need to find a way to get through to him,” Priess said. “He seems to process information differently, but it’s the briefers’ job to figure out how to make sure the message he needs gets to him.”
Conveniently for Trump, if he continues to refuse the daily briefs as president, he’ll be making the job that much harder for the very same intelligence community he’s denigrated in the past. If the president’s briefers aren’t allowed to show their work, Trump will have an easier time simply dismissing out of hand any new information that he doesn’t like. “At its fundamental level, the briefing relationship has to be built on trust,” said Priess. “The briefer is bringing to the president sometimes uncomfortable truths—‘here is information that is inconvenient for you, that might show your policy isn’t working.’ The president needs to trust that this is the best interpretation of the available intelligence.” And that, more than how often Trump receives the briefs, is the real reason to be concerned.