JASON REED / FILE PHOTO / REUTERS An aerial view of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, January 2008.

Trump’s Top-Secret Transition

The Intelligence Traditions Preparing the President-Elect for the Oval Office

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.

INTELLIGENCE QUESTIONED 

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 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.

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