Adapting the President’s Daily Brief to Trump
In a recent interview, President-elect Donald Trump questioned the usefulness of taking daily briefings from the U.S. intelligence community, worrying many observers that he might be unprepared to handle matters of national security as president. Trump said that he preferred to rely on “his generals” as well as Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who were also receiving the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), to alert him when there was something he should know. Trump suggested that the PDB could waste valuable time, since he was already familiar with many of the topics, and his sense was that there was much repetition in the articles and briefing styles. He implied that he would prefer to receive briefings only “if something should change.”
In general, one would expect presidents to seek to be well-informed on the full range of global security issues they will have to deal with while in office and, therefore, to seek opportunities to engage the intelligence community. Trump’s comments, however, strongly suggest that he will only take the PDB when necessary — such as when he took a briefing following the terrorist attacks in Germany and Turkey. According to David Priess, an expert on the history of the PDB and author of a ground-breaking book on the subject (who appeared in a recent War on the Rocks podcast), Trump has taken fewer PDBs on average than any previous president-elect. Given the president-elect’s relative inexperience handling matters of national security, his distaste for intelligence briefings has troubled many observers.
It is worth remembering, however, that Trump is currently receiving President Obama’s version of the briefing. In other words, the PDB is yet to be tailored to Trump’s preferences, to which every president is entitled since it is their briefing. As former acting director of the CIA, Michael Morrell, recently noted, Obama’s PDB after eight years “presupposes a tremendous amount of knowledge.” This is probably not the best way to welcome in a new reader. Hence, it is vital that the intelligence community figure out the best way to adapt the PDB to President Trump.
As a former daily intelligence briefer to senior defense officials and former member of the PDB staff, I do not lament Trump’s attitude toward receiving daily intelligence briefings. Instead, I view it as a particular challenge that the intelligence community is required to decipher every four to eight years. Much of the reporting in recent days has focused on why Trump should be more interested in the PDB, but in my view, the focus should be on how the intelligence community can encourage President Trump to take the briefing. This puts pressure on the intelligence community to think deeply and creatively about ways in which to optimize the PDB for the next president.
According to Priess, the last six decades have witnessed presidents with a wide range of personalities, styles, and agendas occupying the Oval Office, and yet, remarkably, the CIA (and starting in 2005, the intelligence community as represented by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence) has successfully engaged nearly all of them. The only possible exception to the rule is President Richard Nixon, who, as president-elect, did not take a single PDB briefing, though he might have read the PDB while president. Trump can become yet another success story, but only if the intelligence community effectively tailors the PDB to him. Below are several recommendations on how to do so.
First, in terms of communicating the PDB, the intelligence community could begin by significantly reducing the level of details in its articles. To be sure, most articles are already bulletized, but the president-elect’s preferences will likely call for even less text — perhaps even to the point of presenting short sentences or even just phrases. In addition, the PDB should consider incorporating summary judgments. The good thing is that the intelligence community excels at creating summaries and bulletized assessments as it has done this for many past presidents.
However, Trump probably does not prefer the written product. While on the campaign trail, Trump famously said “I watch the shows” in response to a question about how he acquired military advice. This suggests that the PDB process should emphasize the in-person briefing component. All presidents have benefited from having access to a full-time intelligence briefer, and some have benefited from such interactions more than others. President Kennedy, for example, preferred casual conversations on national security, and many presidents, such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, highly valued their interactions with briefers which enabled them to ask follow up questions.
Furthermore, classified video might help the president-elect to more effectively absorb the intelligence. In a nod to his Hollywood days, the CIA occasionally supplemented President Reagan’s written briefing with classified video footage. President Obama operates a secure iPad that enables the incorporation of media such as video and interactive graphics. In all of these cases, however, live discussions and videos were meant to supplement a president’s readings. If Trump chooses not to read, then the intelligence community would be left with only verbalized briefings and media tools to engage the president — which would be a first for a community that prides itself on the written word.
Second, regarding the content of Trump’s PDBs, the briefings could begin with analysis of foreign reactions to his statements and his meetings with foreign leaders. Although all presidents are interested in these types of intelligence reports, some have more of a penchant for personalized intelligence than others. Like President Lyndon Johnson, who was referred to as “Big Ears” for his notorious love of gossip, Trump appears to value information on how others perceive him and reactions to his statements. As such, the intelligence community could lead with personalized information that then expands to strategic-level analysis of the country or region in question to support Trump’s decision-making. Trump’s frequent use of Twitter offers a unique opportunity to gauge foreign reaction to his comments.
And third, Trump ran on a populist platform that, in many instances, linked poor domestic economic conditions to shortcomings in foreign policy. For example, in a pair of recent tweets, the president-elect rhetorically asked “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete) [and] heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them)…?” The intelligence community could, therefore, assess foreign responses to adjustments in U.S. trade policy, especially in the area of bilateral trade and regional free trade agreements.
Some might object to these recommendations by insisting that the PDB not be too heavily tailored to any president’s personal interests because this focus would detract from the ability of intelligence officials to decide what he needs to know, not just what he wants to know. Indeed, the intelligence community must continue to be empowered to identify emerging topics of importance and unilaterally submit these to the president. This should continue to be the case. Rather what I am suggesting here are ways to encourage Trump to engage in the PDB process, which should then open the aperture further to more robust participation in these briefings. At this point, intelligence agencies would have greater liberty to submit items that he needs to know. As a former intelligence briefer, these tactics worked consistently across multiple consumers of intelligence.
Finally, as mentioned above, the PDB is currently Obama’s briefing. The intelligence community must start over again by providing Trump with its baseline assessments to help get him up to speed. This process would support Trump’s desire to be contacted “if something changes” because it would enable him to understand deviations from analytic lines currently on the books. Trump also mentioned, however, that he has limited time, and this process would certainly take time. Thus, it makes sense for intelligence agencies to continue to present its assessments to Trump’s national security team so that they can provide these perspectives to the president in a piecemeal fashion and as needed.
It is important to highlight, however, that there has been a fair amount of debate about the wisdom of excluding intelligence briefers from meetings with the president and instead relying on the National Security Council and others to brief the PDB to the president. Policymakers are not as familiar with the nuances of the intelligence collection, reporting, and analytic processes. While several presidents — including Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan — have relied, to great effect, on their advisers to summarize and brief the PDB to them, problems can arise if advisers too aggressively filter intelligence before it reaches the president. For example, Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, served as the ultimate gatekeeper to reaching the president with intelligence — so much so, that Nixon seems to have preferred to peruse Kissinger’s daily compilation of intelligence instead of the PDB.
In this respect, observers of the PDB process should pay close attention to the role of incoming national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, and the process he develops for controlling and sharing intelligence that the president may need to know.
Regardless, the intelligence community should seek to adapt the PDB to maximize its interest and relevance to the president-elect, and by doing so, maximize the likelihood that Trump will continue and expand his direct engagement with the community.
Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He previously served at the Defense Intelligence Agency as the daily intelligence briefer to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Pentagon and on the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) staff. Grossman was the winner of the 2014 “Galileo Competition” which fosters new and innovative ideas in the intelligence community. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.