For Spy Agencies, Briefing Trump Is a Test of Holding His Attention

0
6

WASHINGTON — President Trump has blamed many others for his administration’s flawed response to the coronavirus: China, governors, the Obama administration, the World Health Organization. In recent weeks, he has also faulted the information he received from an obscure analyst who delivers his intelligence briefings.

Mr. Trump has insisted that the intelligence agencies gave him inadequate warnings about the threat of the virus, describing it as “not a big deal.” Intelligence officials have publicly backed him, acknowledging that Beth Sanner, the analyst who regularly briefs the president, underplayed the dangers when she first mentioned the virus to him on Jan. 23.

But in blaming Ms. Sanner, a C.I.A. analyst with three decades of experience, Mr. Trump ignored a host of warnings he received around that time from higher-ranking officials, epidemiologists, scientists, biodefense officials, other national security aides and the news media about the virus’s growing threat. Mr. Trump’s own health secretary had alerted him five days earlier to the potential seriousness of the virus.

By the time of the Jan. 23 intelligence briefing, many government officials were already alarmed by the signs of a crisis in China, where the virus first broke out, and of a world on the brink of disaster. Within days, other national security warnings prompted the Trump administration to restrict travel from China. But the United States lost its chance to more effectively mitigate the coronavirus in the following weeks when Mr. Trump balked at further measures that might have slowed its spread.

Mr. Trump has not mentioned Ms. Sanner by name when faulting her Jan. 23 briefing. But by focusing on a single briefing, some former officials said, his criticism seemed both personal and misplaced.

“It’s hard for me to imagine her saying something like ‘not so deadly,’” said Greg Treverton, a former National Intelligence Council chairman who worked with Ms. Sanner. “But it is conceivable that is what Trump heard and it wasn’t exactly said.”

Mr. Trump, who has mounted a yearslong attack on the intelligence agencies, is particularly difficult to brief on critical national security matters, according to interviews with 10 current and former intelligence officials familiar with his intelligence briefings.

The president veers off on tangents and getting him back on topic is difficult, they said. He has a short attention span and rarely, if ever, reads intelligence reports, relying instead on conservative media and his friends for information. He is unashamed to interrupt intelligence officers and riff based on tips or gossip he hears from the former casino magnate Steve Wynn, the retired golfer Gary Player or Christopher Ruddy, the conservative media executive.

Mr. Trump rarely absorbs information that he disagrees with or that runs counter to his worldview, the officials said. Briefing him has been so great a challenge compared with his predecessors that the intelligence agencies have hired outside consultants to study how better to present information to him.

Working to keep Mr. Trump’s interest exhausted and burned out his first briefer, Ted Gistaro, two former officials said. Mr. Gistaro did not always know what to expect and would sometimes have to brief an erratic and angry president upset over news reports, the officials said.

Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, said that the idea that Mr. Trump was difficult in intelligence briefings was “flat wrong.” “When you are there, you see a president questioning the assumptions and using the opportunity to broaden the discussion to include real-world perspectives,” Mr. Grenell said.

White House officials disputed the characterization of Mr. Trump as inattentive. “The president is laser-focused on the issues at hand and asks probing questions throughout the briefings — it reminds me of appearing before a well-prepared appellate judge and defending the case,” Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, said in response to a request for comment.

Mr. Trump’s demeanor is hardly judicial, former officials said, but they acknowledged he occasionally asks good questions.

Image
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

An official with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to make Ms. Sanner available for an interview, citing the sensitive nature of her work.

Mr. Trump has long harbored a suspicion of the intelligence agencies, viewing them as part of the so-called deep state intent on undermining his victory in 2016 by revealing that Russia developed a preference for his campaign as it interfered in the election. His distrust has persisted; he publicly belittled his intelligence chiefs last year after a congressional hearing where they offered assessments at odds with the White House, directing them to “go back to school.”

Other presidents have had, at times, contentious relationships with their intelligence briefers. But unlike George W. Bush, who questioned assumptions underlying the analysis, or Barack Obama, who cited analysis from deep in his written briefing, Mr. Trump does not appear to read the document or to otherwise prepare beyond bringing in information he picked up from personal sources.

Latest Updates: Coronavirus Outbreak in the U.S.

  • Fraud network siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment payments in Washington State.
  • Trump declines to wear a mask in public in Michigan, which he visited after threatening its federal funds.
  • Trump orders flags to be lowered to half-staff to memorialize the dead.

“How do you know?” is Mr. Trump’s common refrain during his 30- to 50-minute briefings two or three times a week. He counters with his own statistics on issues where he has strong views, like trade or NATO. Directly challenging him, even when his numbers are wrong, appears to erode Mr. Trump’s trust, according to former officials, and ultimately he stops listening.

H.R. McMaster, the former national security adviser, would sometimes interject during intelligence briefings to correct Mr. Trump, but the president would ignore him. The corrections contributed to the president’s growing irritation with Mr. McMaster, according to people familiar with the briefings. Mr. McMaster, who was replaced in 2018 after 13 months in the post, declined to comment.

Think of Mr. Trump as a performer who is always on, even in the confines of a classified briefing, Joseph Maguire, the former acting director of national intelligence, has advised other officials. Mr. Maguire has told briefers they need to know their audience and understand that Mr. Trump honed his style on reality television, said a former senior intelligence official. Mr. Maguire declined to comment.

Intelligence briefings are among the most important entries on a president’s calendar. The briefer, always a top C.I.A. analyst, delivers the latest secrets and best insights from the 17 intelligence agencies. The oral briefings to Mr. Trump are based on the President’s Daily Brief, the crown jewels of intelligence reports, which draws from spywork to make sophisticated analytic predictions about longstanding adversaries, unfolding plots and emerging crises around the world.

But getting Mr. Trump to remember information, even if he seems to be listening, can be all but impossible, especially if it runs counter to his worldview, former officials said.

When Ms. Sanner replaced Mr. Gistaro in 2019, she tried a new approach. She gives Mr. Trump an agenda to try to keep him on track and deploys a more analytical style than the just-the-facts delivery of Mr. Gistaro.

Over her career, Ms. Sanner, 56, has directed the agency’s training program for new analysts, overseen the assembly of the most sensitive intelligence reports and has expertise in Central Europe, Russia and Southeast Asia. She relies on humor and sarcasm to get her point across and will subtly challenge the president.

If Mr. Trump diverges onto irrelevant topics, she will let him talk before interrupting to confidently ask to move on, said people who have seen Ms. Sanner brief the president.

Image

Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

Mr. Trump, who made his name in real estate, is drawn to subjects like international economic developments. Ms. Sanner highlights that material and tells the president what is in the intelligence for him, according to people familiar with her briefing style. She draws from recent intelligence reports, or that day’s edition of the President’s Daily Brief, to lay out a compelling story around a new piece of intelligence. The technique is effective, according to associates of Ms. Sanner.

Mr. Trump has also shown interest in foreign leaders, particularly autocrats like President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, and Ms. Sanner mentions them to draw in the president on topics that he might otherwise tune out.

While Mr. Trump does not appear to read the intelligence reports he is given, he will examine graphs, charts and tables. Satellite pictures clearly interest him, too: He tweeted one from his intelligence brief, revealing the capabilities of some of the government’s most classified spy assets.

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 20, 2020

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Can I go to the park?

      Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.

    • How do I take my temperature?

      Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How do I get tested?

      If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.