Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd, a CNN national security analyst, served on the National Security Council during President Barack Obama’s administration from 2009 to 2013. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
The Washington Post reported this month that President Donald Trump “rarely if ever” reads the classified intelligence briefing he gets each morning, in a break with presidential tradition.
“Reading the traditionally dense intelligence book is not Trump’s preferred ‘style of learning,’ according to a person with knowledge of the situation,” the Post reported. Whether the President reads the briefing – or digests the information aurally – aside, we just hope that he starts using intelligence to inform policy.
So, what is he missing?
The President’s Daily Brief (PDB) is the intelligence community’s coordinated, daily roundup of the issues it assesses the President needs to know each morning. From the tactical to the strategic, operatives gather intelligence on a range of topics, analysts read raw intelligence and develop assessments, and sometimes their work makes it all the way to the Oval. Every member of the intelligence community works through the Director of National Intelligence to get the PDB delivered to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue each morning. The PDB contains highly classified intelligence that usually take decades to declassify – the CIA released declassified PDBs from the Nixon Administration in 2016, decades after they were written.
President Trump’s Twitter feed implies that he gets a lot of his “intel” from cable news, and particularly from “Fox and Friends,” but if that’s the case, he is missing a lot of vital, and actionable, information. Being commander in chief means balancing competing priorities, and the PDB synthesizes near-, medium- and long-term assessments to support the President’s policy process.
Just to illustrate the point, here’s what my version of what a typical PDB might look like:
To: President Trump
Russia’s attack goes on, and Putin is undeterred
Putin feels emboldened to continue attacking the United States. The 2018 midterm elections are a convenient event in a long-standing campaign to sow division in the United States. They’re just one notch in a long timeline of undermining confidence in American democracy.
We assess that Russia will continue denying its malfeasance while Putin prepares for a so-called “election” for president in Russia. Because he has centralized control of the media, he will continue to push out positive narratives in the run-up to the voting in March. His control of the legal and justice system has also guaranteed a win, as he has pushed out any other contenders.
We assess that Putin’s anti-US rhetoric will increase until voting occurs, as he tries to paint the United States as weak, chaotic and under duress. Russian media (social and mainstream) will be in overdrive promoting pro-Putin messages, and, based on past patterns of behavior, we can expect bots and trolls to be working overtime.
International reactions to Parkland
In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, we have analyzed international reactions to gun violence in the United States. Russia will use the bipartisan divide over gun control to amplify a narrative of US polarization (which is part of their information warfare campaign). Open-source reporting shows that Sputnik – designated as a Foreign Agent of Russia by the United States – ran an article after the shooting stating that “one of the basic problems of the issue is that there tends to be a strong polarization of reaction in the United States.” We assess that our adversaries will continue to exploit inaction on gun control, and reports on the FBI missing key threats, to amplify a broader narrative of US weakness.
Venezuelan democracy continues to deteriorate: migration flows to increase
President Nicolas Maduro’s administration has led to an ongoing crisis, which we assess will escalate in the weeks to come. Venezuela’s economic deterioration, political persecution and dire humanitarian conditions are leading to mass migration to neighboring countries (which will be a burden). Recent conservative estimates indicate that 500,000 Venezuelans have fled in the last two years alone, and our analysis points to increased flows throughout the year, as Maduro has not changed course. Sanctions have not led Maduro to stop undermining Venezuela’s democratic institutions.
In light of Maduro’s continued focus on centralizing power, we expect Venezuelans to flee the country at a quicker pace over the coming months. This will place additional burdens on regional security and economic structures in countries like Colombia and Brazil.
Rohingya crisis will have long-term impact: Bangladesh will need to maintain refugee camps
Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar will have major implications for the Rohingya, as well as neighboring countries. With 680,000 Rohingya arriving in Bangladesh since August 2017, refugee camps are overflowing. With over 6,700 Rohingya killed in just the first month of the military’s crackdown in Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign, the agreement between the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar is not giving Rohingya in refugee camps any sense of security. They fear – and will continue to fear – repatriation in Myanmar because of the onslaught of violence that they experienced last year and in previous violent episodes.
Netanyahu under pressure
As you prepare to host Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in early March, developments in Israel have put him under additional pressure. Late last week, police said they had sufficient evidence to indict Netanyahu on various charges in two separate investigations.
Our analysis indicates that Israeli domestic opinion may shift further out of favor with Netanyahu, particularly as his popularity has decreased recently.
In light of these factors, we assess that Netanyahu will focus attention on domestically popular “wins” like the US decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem. While he is not required to resign, the political landscape in Israel, including opposition parties like Labor, will rally around a potential indictment to undermine Netanyahu. The next elections are not scheduled until 2019.
Probability of more US-Russia confrontation in Syria likely
We assess that the likelihood of more US-Russian direct engagement in Syria is likely, following reports of US forces killing Russian soldiers and vice versa on the ground in Syria.
Because Putin likes to downplay Russia’s physical involvement backing pro-Assad forces in Syria, Russia will likely continue to deny any Russian service members’ deaths, but the potential for more direct, conventional engagement is not insignificant. Russia has been using mercenaries in Syria to support the regime and fight opposition forces.
With troops from the United States, Russia and Turkey all on the ground – and Iranian-backed forces also in the mix – the potential for more engagement is high.
Chinese will likely retaliate against US tariffs
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Our analysis indicates that China has been following US rhetoric and policy closely, and will not remain passive if the United States imposes tariffs on additional Chinese products. China has been relatively inactive in response to US descriptions of China as a “rival power,” but if additional tariffs on key Chinese exports like aluminum are imposed, the Xi government may take measures in retaliation.
Based on Chinese government reactions, we assess that a tit-for-tat trade response is the most likely.