How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Each U.S. president inherits history’s most robust system for gaining insight into the capabilities and intentions of other powers. A vital part of this national security infrastructure is the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB, which contains the nation’s most sensitive intelligence reporting and analysis. For more than 50 years, the U.S. intelligence community has delivered this top-secret book to the commander in chief every working day. Along with other support, the PDB helps the president remain the best-informed person on Earth on a wide range of global challenges.
Candidates for the nation’s highest office, by contrast, often begin their runs for the White House with scant knowledge of foreign affairs. And Donald Trump started his presidential bid with even less knowledge than most of his predecessors. In a matter of weeks, however, he will be president. It will be his job to make tough calls across the spectrum of intelligence and foreign affairs issues.
Two little-known customs help close the gap between a candidate’s nomination and the winner’s inauguration: major party candidates are offered classified intelligence briefings during the campaign, and the winner of the election gains access to the sitting president’s PDB during the transition period. These institutions have allowed each outgoing president and his intelligence community to prepare the president-elect for the Oval Office—and they provide some insight into how Trump might get up to speed for his time at the helm.
Trump’s comments during the campaign suggested a lack of familiarity with intelligence, a distrust of its providers within the government, or both. Most dramatic were remarks he made on August 17, before he’d become privy to any classified information. He was asked whether he trusted intelligence. “Not so much from the people that have been doing it for our country,” he replied. “I mean, look what's happened over the last ten years.”
Then he attended his first intelligence briefing, the very existence of which surprised many Americans. In fact, U.S. President Harry Truman started the tradition in 1952 as a way to inform his potential successors about the problems that awaited them. Why would the president make classified information available to two people, knowing that one of them would not need it? It helps to recall that Truman had taken the presidential oath of office after only several weeks as vice president, during which time Franklin Roosevelt hadn’t even told him about the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. Truman thought that it was important to do better for presidential candidates than had been done for him as vice president.
Ever since—as detailed in career CIA officer John Helgerson’s Getting To Know the President, which he wrote for the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence—Republican and Democratic candidates have been offered these briefings. Beyond Truman’s original intent, the briefings have also proved useful in helping candidates to understand what not to say on the stump that they would regret later. President Jimmy Carter captured this best: “I wanted the long briefings,” he told Helgerson. “I wanted particularly not to make any inadvertent mistake that would complicate things for President Ford . . . or later for me.” Perhaps that’s why nearly every major party candidate has attended at least one such briefing. And such briefings came and went with little fanfare.
Until 2016. Soon after the conventions, politicians and pundits began to express doubts about presenting intelligence information to both candidates: Trump, because of his tendency to blurt out thoughts as they come to him; and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, because of the FBI Director’s public statement that she had been “careless” in her handling of classified information.
And, sure enough, the subject of intelligence popped up during a presidential debate just weeks after the candidates’ first individual intelligence briefings. Trump said, on the one hand, that he “didn’t learn anything” during the meetings to alter his views on how to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). But on the other, he did call his briefers “experts” and implied that they had impressed him: “When they call it intelligence, it’s there for a reason.”
Another surprise came when Trump claimed that he received signals from his briefers about U.S. President Barack Obama: “In almost every instance—and I could tell, I have pretty good with the body language [sic], I could tell—they were not happy. Our leaders did not follow what they were recommending.” Without follow-up on how the briefers conveyed such a thing, debate watchers remained confused about what Trump ultimately took away from his intelligence briefings.
At the third and final debate, the discussion turned to Russian hacking. Just days earlier, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Department of Homeland Security had issued a joint statement declaring that “the U.S. Intelligence Community is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.” Yet Trump claimed that his opponent “doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking” and followed with, “maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia.” It remains unclear whether Trump was trying to cast doubt on the hacking itself or the assessment of Russian direction thereof. If the latter, he declined to offer evidence or logic to support his contention. Or he may simply retain doubts about any judgments that come from the intelligence community.
Either way, the back-and-forth left voters wondering about the value of classified briefings for candidates—and curious about how Trump, if elected, would build on such a rocky start with intelligence.
The experiences of past presidents-elect and intelligence officers show that the time between the election and the inauguration can set the stage for productive relations. To get the ball rolling, the outgoing administration has, for decades, offered the PDB to the president-elect right after Election Day, to prepare him, during the short transition, for the myriad national security threats and opportunities he will face.
In 1968—the first regular transition of the presidency after the creation of the PDB in 1964—outgoing President Lyndon Johnson authorized CIA officers to give incoming President Richard Nixon the same PDB he was seeing every morning. Each of Johnson’s successors has followed suit and made what insiders simply call “the book” available to the president-elect as soon as practically possible after the election.
For intelligence officers, briefing Trump on uncomfortable truths will come with challenges.
That doesn’t mean it has always gone smoothly. During the inaugural offering to Nixon, CIA officers failed to get face-to-face access to the president-elect. So they did the next best thing, dutifully delivering a sealed copy of the PDB every working morning to Nixon’s secretary in his transition office. Their feedback came at the end of the transition, in the form of a delivery from Nixon’s office: a towering stack of the previous two months’ PDB envelopes—all unopened.
Intelligence officers assigned to transition duty for Nixon’s successors eventually gained entrée to each president-elect. In 1980, former CIA director and Vice President-elect George H. W. Bush helped persuade President-elect Ronald Reagan to take regular CIA briefings during the transition. But Reagan proved resistant to intelligence assessments that challenged his existing worldviews. During one meeting, a briefer gave Reagan both that day’s President’s Daily Brief and a special report on various anti-Israeli Palestinian groups and leaders. Reagan read the extensive report, then asked his briefer, “But they are all terrorists, aren’t they?”
More often, the intelligence briefings have whetted appetites for more. President-elect Bill Clinton, for example, didn’t take his first PDB briefing until ten days after the election, but his intense interest in the classified material prompted intelligence sessions almost daily in Little Rock from that point on. Clinton decided during this time to expand the range of issues in what would become his own daily book of secrets. “I became convinced early on that economics was going to be increasingly tied to security, and a part of that would be environmental issues,” he told me. “So Al Gore and I asked the CIA to include in the PDB any salient information on economic developments and environmental developments.”
After the most closely contested election in modern history, in November 2000, only one thing stopped Clinton from following tradition and bringing the president-elect into the PDB circle right after the election: Who had won? Vice President Al Gore continued to receive the PDB each morning, but Texas Governor George W. Bush, who appeared to have won the popular vote in Florida—and, thus, the Electoral College—stayed out of the loop.
As the days without a formal resolution to the election drama stretched to weeks, pressure mounted to do something, even before the Supreme Court rendered a judgment on the election recount. “We decided that the clock was ticking too much,” then-White House Chief of Staff John Podesta told me. “We needed to get him into the system.” Clinton authorized the CIA to start giving Bush the same intelligence that the president received each day—the first time in history that a presidential candidate started receiving the PDB beforebeing universally acknowledged as the winner.
The Obama administration announced right after the 2016 election that no such hurdles blocked Trump’s reception of the brief, and intelligence officers stood ready in New York to support the new president-elect. How often Trump chooses to take the briefings being offered to him will reveal far more about his probable use of intelligence as president than anything he said during the debates.
Inauguration Day starts like most others for the incumbent president, with the PDB. He is still in charge, for a few more hours, and it remains hisbook. The inner circle around the president understands that this is a special day. On January 20, 1989, for example, National Security Advisor Colin Powell and White House Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein kept to their morning routine and met with Reagan in the Oval Office. They had read the PDB earlier that morning, just as carefully as ever. But on Inauguration Day, Powell’s instincts told him that nothing required Reagan’s attention. “Mr. President,” he said plainly, “the world is quiet today.”
Things feel different for the president-elect. As soon as he completes the oath, swearing or affirming [the Constitutional oath allows either] to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” the responsibilities of the office become his. And with them comes the massive support structure for those duties, including what is now his President’s Daily Brief.
An immediate choice for the new president is whether he will simply read the daily book of secrets and discuss its content with White House advisers or make time for face-to-face briefings from intelligence officers. The former approach appealed to Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan. The briefer-in-the-room option worked for the first 14 months of Gerald Ford’s presidency and for the entire terms of both Bushes. Clinton and Obama tried a mix, reading the PDB every day and accepting briefers some of the time.
The most intense briefing relationships came with the Bush family in the White House. Bush senior ordered the CIA to deliver his PDB by hand every day, not only to the few senior White House officials attending his own daily intelligence meeting in the Oval Office, but also to the chairman of the joint chiefs, the secretary of state, and the secretary of defense. And he insisted that each of these recipients follow his own method of receiving the book: a CIA officer would deliver each principal’s copy directly to him, stand by to answer any questions, and return the book immediately to Langley. His son brought back the same daily briefing approach that his father had enjoyed and took it up a notch, taking a PDB briefer with him on foreign and domestic trips, too, during his eight years in office.
With his schedule measured down to the minute, Trump will have immense demands on his time. Carving out a window every day to discuss with intelligence officers their assessments of global threats and opportunities will not be easy.
Yet the advantages to Trump of daily, in-person intelligence briefings may outweigh the downsides. Reporting on his interactions with top executives in his own company indicates that he prefers discussions to documents. Long assessments that lay out complicated evidence and argumentation, however well written and edited, may match up poorly with his preferred learning style. Moreover, interaction with briefers will allow Trump to question the assumptions underlying the book’s substantive arguments, probe briefers about the experts’ confidence in various conclusions, discuss alternative assessments, and hear higher-order implications that might not come out without spontaneous conversation.
Intelligence officers’ face time with Trump would also help prevent the PDB from becoming a very expensive paperweight in his administration, as it was during that of Nixon. Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, claimed that Nixon “frequently ignored it” while president. “The PDB was not a central document in our thinking,” Kissinger told me. “It was one input.”
For intelligence officers, briefing Trump on uncomfortable truths will come with challenges. In settings ranging from press interviews to late-night tweets, he has reacted quickly and abrasively to news that he doesn’t like. Although intelligence officers institutionally have come to expect rough reactions from a significant subset of any administration, giving a reflexively combative president a daily intelligence briefing would be new—and would put extraordinary pressure on briefers and their agencies.
How often Trump chooses to take the briefings offered to him will reveal far more about his use of intelligence as president than anything he said during the debates.
Face-to-face disagreements between presidents and their intelligence briefers, however, don’t necessarily bode ill for their relationship. George H.W. Bush set the gold standard here. In one case, he bet his briefer that the PDB’s prediction of a forthcoming election’s result was wrong. In that case, time proved Bush right, and the intelligence briefer paid up—with an ice cream cone.
Trump has plenty of reason to work with his briefers instead of against them. Productive interactions with his intelligence community, after all, would help to overcome the skepticism of many in the national security arena. Also, as Trump learns that the PDB really is hisbook, he will discover that his productive engagement will motivate analysts to deliver deeper insights to help him make important decisions.
A case from late in Clinton’s presidency is instructive. On the morning of July 4, 1999, he was preparing to meet with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Washington as the Indian subcontinent teetered on the verge of the world’s first nuclear war.
Despite years of ebb and flow with his intelligence briefings, that morning, like most, Clinton had read his PDB carefully. “I was concerned, in part because of the things I’d read in the PDB,” he told me. “I thought India and Pakistan had less than perfect knowledge about each other’s nuclear doctrine and intentions.” Clinton confronted Sharif with his apprehensions, asking if the prime minister knew that his own military was preparing nuclear missiles for action, bringing the dispute closer to a catastrophe. Sharif seemed taken aback. Eventually, the president persuaded him to withdraw Pakistani troops and, in return, pledged to encourage India to restart a bilateral dialogue with Pakistan.
Clinton credits his daily intelligence report with helping him prevent a nuclear war: “I felt particularly well served by the PDB.” Trump’s experience with intelligence during the transition may likewise open his eyes to the value of having such cards to play.