For much of the past year, President Trump has declined to participate in a practice followed by the past seven of his predecessors: He rarely if ever reads the President’s Daily Brief, a document that lays out the most pressing information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies from hot spots around the world.
Trump has opted to rely on an oral briefing of select intelligence issues in the Oval Office rather than getting the full written document delivered to review separately each day, according to three people familiar with his briefings.
Reading the traditionally dense intelligence book is not Trump’s preferred “style of learning,” according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
The arrangement underscores Trump’s impatience with exhaustive classified documents that go to the commander in chief — material that he has said he prefers condensed as much as possible. But by not reading the daily briefing, the president could hamper his ability to respond to crises in the most effective manner, intelligence experts warned.
Soon after Trump took office, analysts sought to tailor their intelligence sessions for a president with a famously short attention span, who is known for taking in much of his information from the conservative Fox News Channel. The oral briefings were augmented with photos, videos and graphics.
After several months, Trump made clear he was not interested in reviewing a personal copy of the written intelligence report known as the PDB, a highly classified summary prepared before dawn to provide the president with the best update on the world’s events, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
Administration officials defended Trump’s reliance on oral sessions and said he gets full intelligence briefings, noting that presidents have historically sought to receive the information in different ways.
Michael Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Trump “is an avid consumer of intelligence, appreciates the hard work of his briefers and of the entire intelligence community and looks forward every day to the give and take of his intelligence briefings.”
Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement that “any notion that President Trump is not fully engaged in the PDB or does not read the briefing materials is pure fiction and is clearly not based on firsthand knowledge of the process.”
He added that Trump’s routine sessions with senior intelligence advisers “demonstrate his interest in and appreciation for the value of the intelligence provided. In fact, President Trump engages for significantly longer periods than I understand many previous presidents have done.”
The PDB, which has been described as a newspaper with the smallest circulation in the world, is drawn from material provided by U.S. spies, satellites and surveillance technology, as well as news sources and foreign intelligence agencies.
Several intelligence experts said that the president’s aversion to diving deeper into written intelligence details — the “homework” that past presidents have done to familiarize themselves with foreign policy and national security — makes both him and the country more vulnerable.
Leon Panetta, a former CIA director and defense secretary for President Barack Obama, said Trump could miss important context and nuance if he is relying solely on an oral briefing. The arrangement also increases pressure on the president’s national security team, which cannot entirely replace a well-informed commander in chief, he said.
“Something will be missed,” Panetta said. “If for some reason his instincts on what should be done are not backed up by the intelligence because he hasn’t taken the time to read that intel, it increases the risk that he will make a mistake.”
“You can have the smartest people around you — in the end it still comes down to his decision,” he added.
The top-secret intelligence report, which dates in its current form to the Johnson administration, is made up of individual “articles” written by career analysts, mostly from the CIA. The PDB is so tightly controlled that intelligence officials maintain a log to record when the briefers provide a copy of the document to a principal and when they retrieve it, several officials said.
Mark Lowenthal, a career intelligence officer who served as a CIA assistant director from 2002 to 2005, said Trump does not have to read the PDB if he is getting an extensive oral briefing. He warned, however, that a short briefing on a few select items would leave the president ill-equipped for major decisions over the long term.
“Then he’s really not getting a full intelligence briefing,” Lowenthal said. “You need to get immersed in a story over its entire course. You can’t just jump into an issue and come up to speed on the actors and the implications. The odds are pretty good that something will arise later on for which he has no intelligence basis for helping him work through it.”
The document, while traditionally lengthy and dense, contains key insights that can create a cumulative body of knowledge — and foreshadow looming threats, intelligence professionals said.
President George W. Bush faced a political firestorm over how closely his administration was paying attention to the PDB after it was discovered that a month before the 9/11 attacks, his briefing book had included a warning that Osama bin Laden was “determined” to attack U.S. targets using airplanes.
In the current administration, versions of the president’s written intelligence briefing are provided to at least a dozen top officials, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to people familiar with the dissemination.
Aides say Trump receives his in-person intelligence briefing nearly every day, although his publicly released schedules indicate that the sessions have been taking place about every two to three days on average in recent months, typically around 11 a.m.
One senior White House official described the Oval Office briefing as a distilled version of the sessions that senior administration officials receive earlier in the day. CIA Director Mike Pompeo usually attends the session, as does Coats.
During Trump’s briefing, a veteran intelligence official typically describes intelligence highlights contained in a shortened, written version of the PDB. Trump has rarely, if ever, requested that the document be left behind for him to read, according to people familiar with the meetings.
Pompeo has said the president is briefed on current developments, as well as upcoming events — such as visits by foreign leaders — and longer-term strategic issues.
“The president asks hard questions,” he said in public remarks last month. “He’s deeply engaged. We’ll have a rambunctious back-and-forth, all aimed at making sure we’re delivering him the truth as best we understand it.”
Trump’s admirers say he has a unique ability to cut through conventional foreign policy wisdom and ask questions that others have long taken for granted. “Why are we even in Somalia?” or “Why can’t I just pull out of Afghanistan?” he will ask, according to officials.
The president asks “edge” questions, said one senior administration official, meaning that he pushes his staff to question long-held assumptions about U.S. interests in the world.
Another person familiar with the briefing process said that, at times, Trump has been dismissive of his briefers. He has shaken his head, frowned and complained that the briefers were “talking down to him,” this person said.
Trump has at times demonstrated a deep distrust of the intelligence community. He has accused Obama-era intelligence chiefs of rooting against his election and exaggerating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election in an effort to delegitimize his presidency.
The Washington Post reported last year that intelligence officials in some cases have included Russia-related intelligence only in the president’s daily written assessment, steering clear of it in the oral briefing in order not to upset Trump.
The last U.S. president who is believed not to have regularly reviewed the PDB was Richard Nixon. The historical record contains no references to him having read the document, although Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, received a copy each day, according to David Priess, a former CIA briefer and author of “The President’s Book of Secrets.”
“It is not unprecedented for someone to get only an oral briefing of the PDB,” Priess said. “But it is the exception rather than the rule. And a rare exception.”
The intelligence community prides itself on tailoring the briefing document and the oral briefing to each president’s style. Obama preferred to received the PDB on a secure iPad to review before asking questions of his briefers.
President George W. Bush typically read the PDB first thing in the morning, with his briefer present to review the highlights and answer questions, according to former officials who briefed him.
Neither Obama nor Bush reviewed the briefing book every day, and at times they skipped a session, especially when traveling
President Ronald Reagan read the PDB every day but chose not to have a briefing from a CIA officer, said John Poindexter, who served as Reagan’s national security adviser. Reagan often discussed the briefing document in morning Oval Office meetings with his top advisers, Poindexter said.
Trump indicated early on that he had little interest in immersing himself in detailed intelligence documents.
“I like bullets or I like as little as possible. I don’t need, you know, 200-page reports on something that can be handled on a page,” he told Axios shortly before taking office.
During the transition, the CIA offered to give Trump the same daily intelligence briefing that Obama received, a tradition for presidents-elect. But Trump declined a daily update, opting for less frequent briefings.
“You know, I’m, like, a smart person,” Trump said in a “Fox News Sunday” interview in December 2016. “I don’t have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years. It could be eight years — but eight years. I don’t need that.”
At the time, Obama warned it was never wise to skip insights from intelligence professionals.
“If you’re not getting their perspective — their detailed perspective — then you are flying blind,” he said in an interview on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
During the first year of Trump’s presidency, the format of his intelligence briefings changed.
In the early days, he received the traditional briefing sometime between 9 and 10:30 a.m., according to his publicly released schedules. Within a few months, his intelligence advisers began augmenting the sessions with maps, charts, pictures and videos, as well as “killer graphics,” as Pompeo put it at the time.
“That’s our task, right? To deliver the material in a way that he can best understand the information we’re trying to communicate,” Pompeo told the Post in May.
The early briefing sessions had a more freewheeling quality, according to current and former administration officials. Five or more White House aides might join Trump for the briefing, in addition to his briefer and intelligence officials.
The meetings were often dominated by whatever topic most interested the president that day. Trump would discuss the news of the day or a tweet he sent about North Korea or the border wall — or anything else on his mind, two people familiar with the briefings said.
On such days, there would only be a few minutes left — and the briefers would have barely broached the topics they came to discuss, one senior U.S. official said.