A new chapter of a CIA-published book details former President Trump’s “difficult” transition after winning the 2016 presidential election, a tension the bureau largely attributed to Trump’s fraught relationship with the intelligence community that he derided publicly throughout his campaign and presidency.
In a newly released chapter, John Helgerson, a former intelligence officer, writes that Trump’s administration was ill-prepared for the presidential transition from Barack Obama because the former president apparently did “not expect to win the election.” The book is part of a broader CIA publication called, “Getting To Know the President,” which was first published in 1996. (The new chapter on Trump is included in the fourth edition of the tome.)
Even when the transition process began, Trump notably took an unprecedented approach with his interactions with intelligence officials and agencies.
Here are some key takeaways from the Helgerson chapter:
Trump publicly bashed the intel community (IC) while privately walking back his remarks
During a briefing on Sept. 2, 2016:
“Trump told the briefers that he valued the first session in August and their expertise. They were surprised when he assured them that “the nasty things he was saying” publicly about the Intelligence Community “don’t apply to you.”
Trump drew outrage from IC even before he won the election
Trump sparked outrage among former intelligence officers during a debate on Sept. 7, 2016, when Trump referenced intelligence briefers’ “body language” in suggesting that they were “not happy” with policies of the Obama administration, according to an excerpt.
With Presidential Daily Briefings, Trump ‘doesn’t read much’
Asked how closely Trump read the daily briefing itself, CIA analyst Ted Gistaro recalled:
“He touched it. He doesn’t really read anything.”
Then-DNI head James Clapper agreed:
“Trump doesn’t read much; he likes bullets.” Trump’s style was to listen to the key points, discuss them with some care, then lead the discussion to related issues and others further afield. This turned out to be the general model for PDB sessions.
Trump’s handling of PDBs was a ‘significant departure’ from Bush and Obama’s transitions
During his transition, Trump received no briefings from the CIA on covert action programs:
Mike Pompeo, the member of HPSCI [House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence] who was nominated by Trump to become director of the CIA, was knowledgeable of the covert programs from his service on the oversight committee, but during the transition and in his early weeks in office, he reviewed more comprehensive material and was provided additional briefings discussing the programs in greater detail. Trump himself was not briefed prior to being sworn in, nor in the first several weeks of his administration.
Trump sought to discredit CIA after it determined Russia’s interference in the 2016 election
After the press reported in early Dec. 2016 that the CIA determined that Russia had intervened in the election to boost Trump’s candidacy:
In response, Trump sought to discredit the competence of the Agency. “I don’t believe it. These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” In a press interview, he also stated that, as president, he would not take the intelligence briefing on a daily basis, as his predecessors had. He said he would take it when he needed it, adding, “I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.… If something should change…I’m available on a one-minute’s notice.” These comments foreshadowed a difficult relationship between the new president and the IC.
Trump accused the IC of being ‘out to destroy him’ after Steele dossier leaked to the press
Trump vented to Gisaro during a PDB briefing session that the IC was “out to destroy him,” despite the intel community’s denial of responsibility for the dossier:
Gistaro did not believe that Trump ever accepted subsequent IC disavowals of responsibility for the dossier. In his first postelection news conference, Trump denounced the dossier as “false and fake.” He said the work of US intelligence officials was vital to American interests but accused them of releasing the document, saying that was something Nazi Germany would have done and did do. Separately, in a social media tweet, Trump wrote, “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” After the news conference, Clapper promptly telephoned Trump to explain that the offending document was not a product of US Intelligence and that he did not think the leak came from the IC. He said the IC had not made any judgment about the reliability of the information contained in the dossier and did not rely on it in any way in reaching its own conclusions about Russia’s actions.
Trump accused then-CIA director John Brennan, who he had differences with, of leaks
A few days later, shortly before his inauguration, Trump returned to the issue, tweeting on social media a reference to CIA Director Brennan: “Was [he] the leaker of Fake News?” This apparently was the last straw for Brennan, then in the last few days of his service as director (and, in the previous few years, a close confidant of Obama).
Helgerson also noted that Trump differed from Brennan by resoundingly arguing that “torture works,” referring to harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding — which Trump vowed to resume “immediately” upon entering office and expressed openness to unspecified techniques that were “a hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding.
This was another of the issues that pitted Trump against Brennan. Although the CIA director never updated CIA’s internal regulations to flatly forbid waterboarding (or other enhanced interrogation techniques), he repeatedly made clear his personal aversion to waterboarding and ensured that the Agency followed White House guidance regarding adherence to the Army Field Manual.
Trump was prone to ‘fly off on tangents’ around IC officials
Trump’s visit to the CIA headquarters on first full day of office was a doozy:
The president made no mention of the sacrifices of those whose stars were on the wall. Rather, he devoted most of his speech to attacking the media for allegedly creating the myth of his feud with the IC. Trump also dwelled on the size of the crowd at his inauguration the previous day and said, incorrectly, that he had been on the cover of Time magazine more often than anyone else. Those in attendance were puzzled by these remarks and, according to one senior officer, returned to their offices shaking their heads.
Despite Trump’s occasional praise of the IC and its personnel, then-DNI Clapper said that Trump was prone to rambling about irrelevant topics during intelligence briefings:
On some occasions, Trump praised the IC and its personnel, thanking them for their service to the nation. DNI Clapper found that Trump could be courteous, affable, and complimentary of the IC—he praised the briefers and twice thanked Clapper for a handwritten note the DNI had sent congratulating the president-elect on his election victory and offering the continued services of the IC. At the same time, Clapper recalled, Trump was prone to “fly off on tangents; there might be eight or nine minutes of real intelligence in an hour’s discussion.” The irreconcilable difference, in Clapper’s view, was that the IC worked with evidence. Trump “was ‘fact-free’—evidence doesn’t cut it with him.”
Conclusion: Trump transition was ‘most difficult’ since Nixon
Helgerson concluded the chapter by writing that the most comparable presidential transition to Trump’s was that of former President Nixon:
For the Intelligence Community, the Trump transition was far and away the most difficult in its historical experience with briefing new presidents. The only (and imperfect) analogue was the Nixon transition, when the president-elect effectively declined to work with the IC, electing, instead, to receive intelligence information through an intermediary, National Security Advisor-designate Henry Kissinger. Trump was like Nixon, suspicious and insecure about the intelligence process, but unlike Nixon in the way he reacted. Rather than shut the IC out, Trump engaged with it, but attacked it publicly.