To Woo a Skeptical Trump, Intelligence Chiefs Talk Economics Instead of Spies

Intelligence officials who brief the president have warned him about Chinese espionage in bottom-line business terms. They have used Black Sea shipping figures to demonstrate the effect of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. And they have filled the daily threat briefing with charts and graphs of economic data.

In an effort to accommodate President Trump, who has attacked them publicly as “naïve” and in need of going “back to school,” the nation’s intelligence agencies have revamped their presentations to focus on subjects their No. 1 customer wants to hear about — economics and trade.

Intelligence officers, steeped in how Mr. Trump views the world, now work to answer his repeated question: Who is winning? What the president wants to know, according to former officials, is what country is making more money or gaining a financial advantage.

While the professionals do not criticize Mr. Trump’s focus, they do question whether those interests are crowding out intelligence on threats like terrorism and the maneuvers of traditional adversaries, developments with foreign militaries or geopolitical events with international implications.

“If Trump tailors it to his needs, that is fine and his prerogative,” Douglas H. Wise, a career C.I.A. official and a former top deputy at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said of the daily briefing. “However, if he suppresses intelligence through that tailoring, that is not helpful. He is no longer making informed decisions because he is making decisions based on information he could have had but didn’t have.”

Presidents have long shaped their intelligence briefings based on their interests and the issues of the moment — be it a Cold War with the Soviet Union or Al Qaeda and terrorism. Other presidents have also told intelligence agencies to focus more on economics. After his election, President Bill Clinton told his briefers that he wanted more economic information. And during the recession caused by the 2008 financial crisis, President Barack Obama had an economic intelligence briefing created to supplement the daily intelligence briefing.

Mr. Trump, finding traditional intelligence briefings less helpful than his predecessors, reduced the in-person briefings to about twice a week. Those sessions from Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, now feature far more charts and visual aids to appeal to Mr. Trump, according to a senior intelligence official.

“President Trump’s economic focus has been evident, including his emphasis on increasing NATO allies’ burden sharing and pressing allies and partners to do more in support of our common interests,” said Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

The written reports are still delivered daily to John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, who conveys the highlights to Mr. Trump on days when the intelligence chiefs are not at the Oval Office, according to a former official.

The regular briefings have been a cornerstone of how intelligence officers inform the president since the days of President Harry S. Truman. President Obama and President George W. Bush also received such briefings daily.

For 73 years, geopolitical trends, warnings and high-level gossip have been delivered to the White House regularly by the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies in the form of what is today known as the President’s Daily Brief, or P.D.B. Once a thick binder of reports, the P.D.B. is now presented on a secure tablet computer and produced six days a week by officials at the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies.

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Steel pipes in Germany that will be used to construct a pipeline to transport Russian natural gas arriving from the Nord Stream 2. Mr. Trump has pressed his intelligence briefers on why Berlin is allowing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to proceed if Germany is truly worried about Moscow’s aggression.CreditSean Gallup/Getty Images

On any given day, the briefers would describe terrorist threats in the Middle East, worry about the North Korean nuclear program or get the results of covert missions around the world.

Some of what bores Mr. Trump in traditional intelligence briefings, according to former officials, are the detailed analyses of the activities and motivations of secondary foreign officials. The president wants information about the leader of various countries, not the underlings.

But the president has also shown less interest in details about potential terrorist plots or cloak-and-dagger spy work — the kind of secret information that excites most officials. In his view, too little traditional intelligence analysis examines economics and trade as a fundamental driver of international conflict. “Economic security at home goes hand in hand with national security abroad,” said Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council.

So in security briefings, Mr. Trump peppers officials with questions about economic competition with China, including Beijing’s efforts to gain technological superiority and to achieve trade advantages over the United States.

He has also shown a fascination with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, repeatedly asking why she will not cut a deal with him on military spending despite his advisers’ explanation that the German government’s coalition agreement constrains Ms. Merkel’s ability to increase defense funding. And he has pressed his intelligence briefers on why Berlin is allowing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Russia to go forward if Germany is truly worried about Moscow’s aggression.

Mr. Trump has also repeatedly spoken to intelligence and military briefers about the cost of American bases overseas and the defense expenditures of allies in Europe and Asia, according to White House officials.

The president’s push also has national security officials thinking about the economic angles of international flash points. When Russia seized Ukranian sailors and ships in the Sea of Azov, officials in Washington began studying the implications to shipping. White House officials argued that the Europeans would have the most leverage given their dominance of the industry. But they also argued that by raising the costs of shipping, the Russians were “shooting themselves in the foot,” a senior administration official said.

Intelligence officials have always adapted their briefings to the needs and interests of the current president. But they have never faced a challenge like Mr. Trump, who by virtue of his background and experience, views the intelligence agencies with deep skepticism.

The president has publicly clashed with intelligence briefers over their assessments of the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. He has also privately complained after national security briefings that, “My generals don’t understand business,” according to a former administration official.

Senator Angus King, the Maine independent who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Mr. Trump’s criticism of his briefers could inflict real damage. It threatens to intimidate agencies into softening their analysis or not delivering information that the president needs to hear, he said.

“The problem,” Mr. King said, “is the message sent to agencies: ‘Don’t tell me information I don’t want to hear.’”

Mr. Trump’s skepticism of traditional intelligence stretches back to his untraditional path to the presidency, his campaign and his early days in the White House.

American soldiers at Osan Air Base in South Korea. Mr. Trump has repeatedly spoken to intelligence and military briefers about the cost of American bases overseas.CreditPool photo by Kim Hong-Ji

Two weeks before Mr. Trump took office, the top intelligence chiefs — including the heads of the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the N.S.A. — briefed Mr. Trump and his team at Trump Tower on the agencies’ findings that Russia was behind the election meddling. The issue was a touchy matter; Mr. Trump saw any evidence that Russia helped get him elected as an attack on his legitimacy. After the briefing, the F.B.I. director at the time, James B. Comey, pulled Mr. Trump aside.

Mr. Comey told the president that the bureau was given a dossier that showed the Russians may have compromising information on him. The disclosure unnerved Mr. Trump and deepened his suspicions of the intelligence community.

Some former officials say Mr. Trump’s view of the competence of the intelligence agencies has improved, largely because of the work of Ms. Haspel and her predecessor at the C.I.A., Mike Pompeo, now the secretary of state.

But as Mr. Trump’s recent criticism of the intelligence chiefs on Twitter demonstrated, he is still frustrated. That is partially because many of his world views are strongly held. He has shown little willingness, over the long term, to alter those opinions.

The tension with the intelligence agencies is also a reflection of Mr. Trump’s status as the ultimate outsider convinced that the Washington establishment’s way of doing business is broken and flawed.

“He really doesn’t have a lot of respect for the intellectual, professional class,” said Walter Russell Mead, a fellow at the Hudson Institute. “Intelligence agencies are bureaucracies, so what the president is getting is this kind of curated feed. The agencies attach a high value on how they do these things. But that is not Trump.”

While other presidents have frequently disagreed privately with their intelligence briefers, they did not challenge them publicly, said Michael Morell, a former top C.I.A. official who has briefed Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama.

“Bush would say, ‘Michael, I don’t agree with what you are saying,’ then we would have a back and forth and we would discuss it,” said Mr. Morell, who now hosts the “Intelligence Matters” podcast. “Obama would say the same thing. But that discussion was substantive. It wasn’t based on whether something is consistent with your worldview or the policy line you have taken.”

James R. Clapper Jr., President Obama’s director of national intelligence, conducted twice weekly briefings for Mr. Obama, leaving the remaining daily sessions to others. Mr. Obama was a faithful reader of the P.D.B., so the briefings with intelligence officers did not cover the written material but instead offered supplementary material and updates.

Mr. Clapper said that when Mr. Trump became the Republican nominee and began receiving intelligence briefings, it was apparent that “a very different approach” would be needed because Mr. Trump was not a reader.

“So the briefers quickly adjusted to verbal presentations, stressing big points and wherever possible, graphics,” Mr. Clapper said. “That’s not a negative comment since all presidents have their own style of absorbing information.”

Some former administration officials said Mr. Trump’s focus on asking economic questions was just a different form of what his predecessors had done.

“It is not the president’s job to adapt to the P.D.B.,” said David Priess, a former C.I.A. officer and briefer who wrote “The President’s Book of Secrets.” “It is the job of intelligence officers to adapt the P.D.B. to the president.”

Source: NYT

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