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It's no secret: A CIA book looks at fraught relations with Trump

Nov 30, 2021
Originally published on November 30, 2021 9:55 am

It's not exactly classified information — former President Donald Trump and the intelligence community didn't get along. But in an updated book, Getting To Know The President, the story is told from the inside.

The author is a former CIA officer, John Helgerson, who spent 38 years at the agency. The publisher is the CIA's in-house research center. And the book is available for free on the CIA website.

Helgerson gets straight to the point: "For the intelligence community, the Trump transition [from candidate to president] was far and away the most difficult in its historical experience with briefing new presidents."

Helgerson says the only comparable case was President Richard Nixon, who was deeply suspicious of the intelligence agencies and basically ignored them, while Trump regularly fought with them in public and private.

During his fraught relationship with the national security community, Trump cycled through multiple national security advisers, directors of national intelligence and defense secretaries.

But this account quotes insiders, like Trump's regular briefer for the first couple years of his presidency, CIA veteran Ted Gistaro. Gistaro said of Trump and the leather-bound briefing book, "He touched it. He doesn't really read anything."

James Clapper was the director of national intelligence who was responsible for Trump's briefing as he transitioned from candidate to president in late 2016 and early 2017. He said Trump was prone to "fly off on tangents; there might be eight or nine minutes of real intelligence in an hour's discussion."

Clapper says the intelligence community's traditional way of doing business didn't work well with Trump because he "was 'fact-free' — evidence doesn't cut it with him."

Former CIA official David Priess was a briefer during former President George W. Bush's administration and wrote his own book on the topic, The President's Book of Secrets.

He said the revelation that most surprised him was that "President Trump, for the first several weeks of his administration, was not briefed on the entirety of the [CIA's] covert action programs of the previous administration, which on Inauguration Day, became President Trump's covert action programs."

Different presidents have different styles

Presidents have all had their personal preferences for receiving the daily briefing. The final product is the work of the entire intelligence community, though the CIA plays the lead role in putting the document together under the supervision of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Some presidents prefer oral briefings, others liked to read the printed version. President Barack Obama was the first to read it on an iPad.

But in general, the presidents tended to receive the briefing every weekday.

Trump received oral briefings two or three times a week at the beginning of his presidency.

"The single country that occasioned the most discussion with the president during this period was China," Helgerson writes. "North Korea's missile and nuclear programs were priority subjects ... Similarly, coverage continued of developments in Ukraine and Russia; Trump followed both closely."

But in the latter part of his term, Trump's routine called for just two 45-minute briefings a week, Helgerson says.

The author says Trump did not receive intelligence briefings during the final chaotic month of his presidency in late December 2020 through Jan. 20 of this year.

"After the 2020 election, briefings also continued for a period of time. When [CIA briefer Beth] Sanner briefed the president before he went to Mar-a-Lago for the holidays, he commented that he would see her later. The briefings were to resume on 6 January but none were scheduled after the attack on the Capitol," Helgerson writes.

The book is published by the CIA

Helgerson wrote the first edition of this book back in 1996, when he was still working at the agency. (He retired in 2009.) He looks at intelligence briefings for presidential candidates and new presidents and has updated the book with each new administration. The new version is the fourth edition and includes a 40-page chapter devoted entirely to Trump.

The book is published by the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence, essentially the research arm of the CIA, which publishes declassified material in book form and on the CIA website.

These works are not quite official documents, but they are insider accounts published with the CIA's blessing.

Trump had many battles with the intelligence community, and those on Russia were the most monumental.

One of the most important dates was Jan. 6 — not this year, when the Capitol was stormed, but four years earlier: Jan. 6, 2017.

On that day, after Trump had won the election, and two weeks before he would be sworn in, the top intelligence chiefs traveled from Washington to New York to brief the president-elect at Trump Tower.

Much of the discussion focused on Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with the intelligence chiefs asserting the evidence against Moscow was overwhelming.

But at the end of the meeting, then-FBI Director James Comey told Trump about the Steele Dossier, produced by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.

Comey stressed that the material didn't come from U.S. intelligence and the claims were not confirmed but that Trump should know the document was circulating so he wouldn't get blindsided.

As we've come to learn, the dossier was deeply problematic, with salacious claims having been discredited. But Trump always seemed to hold U.S. intelligence responsible, and this set the tone for a very strained relationship.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Of the many new books on former President Donald Trump, there's one that's a bit different from the others. The author is a former CIA officer. The publisher is the spy agency's in-house research center. It's available for free on the CIA website. And in it, Trump is described as, perhaps, the most challenging president for the intelligence community to work with. NPR's Greg Myre joins us to explain why.

Greg, you've covered the intelligence community for years, a long time. And there was certainly a sense that Trump's relationship with those agencies was troubled. What specifically are we learning in this account?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, we now have an insider account of how tortured these relations really were in this new book called "Getting To Know The President." The author, John Helgerson, spent decades working at the CIA and writing about presidential briefings. And he says that for the intelligence community, the Trump transition was, quote, "far and away the most difficult in its historical experience with briefing new presidents." The author says the only comparable case was President Richard Nixon, who was deeply suspicious of the intelligence agencies and basically ignored them, while Trump constantly fought with them.

MARTINEZ: And the book quotes some of those who gave Trump intelligence briefings. What did they say?

MYRE: So Trump's briefer initially was the CIA's Ted Gistaro. He said Trump and his leather-bound briefing book - or of the - Trump and his book that he touched it. But he doesn't really read anything. And James Clapper, the director of national intelligence who oversaw Trump's briefing as he transitioned from candidate to president, said Trump was prone to, quote, flying off on tangents - "there might be eight or nine minutes of real intelligence in an hour's discussion." Now I also spoke with David Priess, a former CIA official who's written extensively about presidential briefings prior to the Trump administration. Here's what surprised him.

DAVID PRIESS: And even President Trump for the first several weeks of his administration was not briefed on the entirety of the covert action programs of the previous administration, which on Inauguration Day became President Trump's covert action programs.

MARTINEZ: All right. And an arm of the CIA is actually the publisher of this book. So how did all of this come about?

MYRE: So way back in 1996, the author, John Helgerson, was working at the CIA and first wrote this book about intelligence briefings for presidential candidates and new presidents. Now, he's updated it over the years. And the latest edition includes this new 40-page chapter devoted to Trump. It's published by the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence - essentially, the historical research arm of the CIA, which publishes declassified material. So it's not exactly an official document. But it is an insider account with the CIA's blessing.

MARTINEZ: And Trump often criticized the intelligence community when it came to Russia and in particular, what was known as the Steele dossier. What does the book say about that?

MYRE: So for these officials, intelligence officials, the key date is January 6, but not this year, when the Capitol was stormed, four years earlier - January 6, 2017. That was two weeks before Trump was sworn in. And on that day, top intelligence officials traveled from Washington to New York to brief President-elect Trump at Trump Towers. And at the end of the meeting, FBI Director James Comey tells Trump about the Steele dossier by this former British intelligence officer. And the material doesn't come from U.S. intelligence. And the claims are not confirmed. But Trump - but they say Trump should know this document is circulating. Trump gets very angry. He always seems to hold U.S. intelligence responsible. And that set the tone for a very strained relationship.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks a lot.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "SEVEN HUNTERS [DAM MANTLE MIX]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.