One of President Donald Trump’s most common responses to intelligence briefings is to doubt what he’s being told, former Deputy Director of Intelligence Susan Gordon said Tuesday.
Gordon, an intelligence veteran of more than 30 years, said Monday that Trump had two typical responses to briefings.
“One, ‘I don’t think that’s true,’” Gordon told the Women’s Foreign Policy Group.
“The one is ‘I’m not sure I believe that,’” Gordon continued, “and the other is the second order and third order effects. ‘Why is that true? Why are we there? Why is this what you believe? Why do we do that?’ Those sorts of things.”
Gordon’s remarks about the President at the group’s gathering may be her first since Trump veered from protocol to block her from rising to become the acting director of national intelligence after the July resignation of Dan Coats.
‘Adjudicate the sources’
Gordon seemed to suggest that it was more difficult trying to figure out where the President had gotten the information that was shaping his beliefs and opinions than dealing with his tendency to doubt what he was being told.
Speaking of Trump’s disbelief, Gordon said, “Remember, intelligence is fundamentally a craft of uncertainty and of possibility, so that doesn’t put you off. It’s trying to catch up to how you adjudicate the sources that led him to believe that and how you respond to it.”
Gordon’s ouster came about because Trump, who has had a contentious relationship with his own intelligence services, wanted a political loyalist in the role who would “rein in” the intelligence agencies.
Coats had had a fraught relationship with Trump, providing assessments of Russia, North Korea, ISIS and Iran that countered the President’s preferred outlook. Coats also vociferously defended US intelligence agencies’ findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections on Trump’s behalf – a finding that the President publicly disavowed in a 2018 public press conference as he stood beside Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
Gordon said Tuesday that serving in the intelligence community had been the honor of a lifetime, calling it “the greatest job ever.”
“Intelligence is a lovely discipline,” she said, “that all you have to do is pursue the truth as hard as you can and then represent it in a manner that policy can be formed.”
Her career included briefing President Ronald Reagan as a 28-year-old, and that longevity in the field gave her some perspective on Trump compared to other presidents. She painted a picture of a commander in chief tightly focused on the economic aspects of national security issues. Trump’s questioning, she said, had a “disproportionately” economic bent to it.
She also noted that Trump arrived in the White House without the framework or foundation that presidents usually have to understand and analyze intelligence reports.
He was the first president “in my experience that had no foundation or framework to understand what the limits of intelligence are, what the purpose of it was and the way that we discuss it,” Gordon said, comparing it to “like playing pickup basketball with one runner. Right, everyone else knows how the game moves and plays and you have one person that comes in and plays and is just so different. That that in of itself is just so different.”
Trump “asked different questions, he pursued the different – he had different trusts,” she said.
Gordon suggested that the President’s intelligence briefers not only faced a challenge because of Trump’s lack of familiarity with the world of intelligence, but also because he consumes information and hears opinions that aren’t as carefully vetted as an intelligence product.
“Because he is probably the first president that arrived with no framework and a world that has massively available information with infinite people offering opinion that oft-times sound the same, but in fact are grittier because they are – they don’t have to have the same standard,” Gordon said.
Since Trump “is much more economic in the way that he sees the word and the intelligence community traditional is much more political, military, purposely so,” Gordon said. “We were scrambling a bit to try and produce intelligence that was foundationally useful for someone who is interested in making trades and deals.”
Gordon said that she found Trump to be “actually kind of a fun brief because he was interactive, he would challenge you.”
The timing and length of briefings differed, Gordon said, and took place about “two to three times a week religiously. I can’t think of a week where we didn’t have a session.”
Sessions would “always start out with us presenting a set of intelligence we thought either were relevant to what he was doing or we thought needed to be heard,” she said. Briefings of “somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour would be typical,” she added.
Gordon also outlined Trump’s similarities with other presidents, starting with the fact that he gets intelligence briefings. “It is a foundational piece of his morning, it is a foundational piece of NSC meetings, whether that was 20 years ago or now,” she said, referring to the National Security Council.
Gordon said all leaders find that “intelligence is massively inconvenient. It actually typically steals some of the decision space of the president. So you are walking in there making things difficult because of what you are presenting. And you are limiting the choices because once it’s heard it is heard and it exists.”
She said another thing “that every president for whom I have worked has wished” is that “intelligence can say things that it can’t. Right, you wish that some piece of truth existed that would allow you to justify.”
Gordon said that every president is different and consumes intelligence differently.
“President Obama was a reader and just voraciously consumed it. JFK wanted three by five cards in his pocket,” she said. The task is “to figure out how to convey the information, because it ultimately, that is what you are trying to do. You are trying to present information in a way that is both heard and then can be used.”
Gordon said that “because the role of intelligence is to … provide wisdom, clarity and insight, you can’t wish that the recipient were different from where they were. Your challenge is to present it in a way that it can be heard.”