Trump said intel briefers were "not happy" about White House policies
Intelligence professionals, Republicans dispute whether that was the case
Donald Trump might not have revealed state secrets, but his controversial description Wednesday night of the agents who gave him his recent intelligence briefings still caused waves.
At an NBC commander in chief forum with the presidential candidates, Trump said that the intelligence briefers had indicated through “body language” that they were “not happy” because “our leaders did not follow what they were recommending.” In fact, he said, President Barack Obama and his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had done “exactly the opposite” of what the intelligence community recommended.
The remarks left intelligence professionals scratching their heads and Republicans scrambling to interpret their candidate’s remarks – because if they’re true, they mark a radical departure from decades of standard practice.
Since the intelligence community began briefing presidential candidates in the 1950s, a central pillar of their approach has been to focus on explaining global situations, not offering advice about them, according to David Priess, a former intelligence briefer for President George W. Bush.
“Wildly unlikely, let me tell you,” Priess said of Trump’s description of his briefings. “Intel briefers do not make policy recommendations. Period.”
A national security expert familiar with the process said Trump’s briefers would not have expressed displeasure in any way. That expert asked to speak anonymously because of political sensitivities.
Intelligence analysts and briefers present assessments of global situations to try to reduce uncertainties for an administration making policy decisions, Priess and other former briefers said. They do not recommend a course of action.
Doling out policy advice, Priess said, is “the third rail of intelligence – you don’t touch it.”
The senior-level intelligence teams that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper set up to handle the candidates’ briefings are career military and intelligence officers, not political appointees, and wouldn’t make such a “rookie mistake,” he said.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence refused to comment.
In contrast, the picture Trump painted seemed quite different. In a commander in chief forum on NBC, Trump said he received briefings from experts on Iraq, Iran and Russia, and that one thing had “shocked” him.
“It just seems to me that what they said, President Obama and Hillary Clinton and John Kerry – who is another total disaster – did exactly the opposite,” he said, mentioning the current secretary of state.
He went on to say that he learned “that our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow what our experts … said to do.”
“I could tell,” Trump added. “I’m pretty good with the body language. I could tell they were not happy. Our leaders did not follow what they were recommending.”
Trump advisor Mike Flynn, who attended the briefings with the candidate, supported Trump’s comments in an interview with NBC. Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said he also saw briefers convey displeasure with White House policy.
“I sure did … in a very specific way,” said Flynn, who added that intelligence officers made distinctions between their briefing points and White House policy, according to NBC.
Some Republicans asked about the comments made by their party’s presidential nominee took issue – if cautiously – with his characterization.
“Typically, I will say, with intelligence briefings they really attempt not to give you a direction,” Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Corker complained that Tapper’s question put him in a “personality referee position, which is not a position that I should be in or want to be in.” He then echoed Priess’ point that intelligence briefers “try to keep it to the facts of the intelligence gathering they’ve put together.”
Priess said it’s possible, given that Trump has no prior experience with intelligence briefings, that the officers describing global hotspots said “something that he interpreted as a policy recommendation.”
The national security expert said it’s also possible that the analysis presented by the briefers didn’t align with the President’s narrative. The source offered as an example Obama’s 2014 reference to ISIS as a “JV team,” when many in the intelligence community regarded it as a strong and growing threat.
The other interpretation, Priess said, was that Trump is “seeking to politicize intel briefings he’s received in a way that no other candidate has ever done.”
Trump’s claims about his briefings weren’t his first apparent inconsistency on intelligence matters. At Wednesday night’s forum, Trump said he had “great respect for the people” who delivered his intel briefings.
A day earlier, on FOX News’ “Fox and Friends,” Trump had been asked if he trusted intelligence.
“Not so much from the people that have been doing it for our country,” Trump said. Referring to the previous decade as “catastrophic,” Trump said, “I won’t use them, because they’ve made such bad decisions.”
Trump also took aim at the top tier of US military leaders Wednesday night, saying they’d been “reduced to rubble” by Obama.
Asked about his plan to have generals submit a proposal to defeat ISIS when he’s declared he knows more about the terror group than they do, Trump said, “Well, they’ll probably be different generals, to be honest with you. I mean, I’m looking at the generals.”
A President Trump could do that, according to retired Col. Cedric Leighton, a former intelligence officer in the Air Force. But he’d face some hurdles as president that wouldn’t exist for a CEO firing employees, he added.
There are historical precedents for presidents handing their generals pink slips, but Trump wouldn’t be able to simply slot in replacements on his own: Generals have to be approved by the Senate.
In an institution like the military where leaders pick their replacements, Leighton said that a new face could be “hard to sell to the rank and file – you have to consider morale and the ability of an organization like the Army or Air Force or Navy or Marine Corps to fall in line behind somebody who may not have the credentials they want.”
Leighton added, “It could be potentially disruptive to the services.”
CNN’s Barbara Starr and Jamie Crawford contributed to this report.