After dismissing intelligence experts, Donald Trump heads in for his classified briefing
By Philip Bump, August 17, 2016
On Wednesday afternoon, Donald Trump stopped by an FBI office in New York City for a classified briefing on American foreign policy.
That sentence alone makes a sizable chunk of the American electorate uncomfortable. Trump's disinterest in modifying the things he says, combined with questions about his sympathies for and possible economic ties to Russia spurred a rash of concerns about his getting access to confidential information last month.
In an interview with "Fox & Friends" on Wednesday, Trump expressed skepticism of his own: About prominent members of the intelligence community. Asked if he "trusted intelligence," Trump replied, "Not so much from the people that have been doing it for our country."
"I mean, look what's happened over the last 10 years," he said, referring to the war in Iraq. "Look what's happened over the years. I mean, it's been catastrophic. In fact, I won't use some of the people that are standards -- you know, just use them, use them, use them, very easy to use them, but I won't use them because they've made such bad decisions."
This is probably mostly a reference to a letter released earlier this month in which 50 members of the Republican national security establishment warned of a Trump presidency. Many of them were involved in the decision-making process before the Iraq War. Trump told Fox News that he was bringing Gen. Michael Flynn with him to the briefing because Flynn was "somebody that I believe in."
The skepticism back and forth is likely misplaced. In July, I spoke with Lanhee Chen who, as the chief policy adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, joined Romney in the two briefings the Republican candidate participated in that year. Chen said that the information disclosed at the briefing (which isn't an on-going thing, as is often believed) was specific to the conversation itself and not a rote set of details. The goal, simply enough, is to provide a basic orientation for the country's national security posture so that an incoming president has some grounding before inauguration. Members of the intelligence community who prepare the president's detailed daily briefing are responsible for the presentation to the candidate, Chen believed, but that the information is different in depth and detail.
"The information we received was obviously classified," he said, "but I don't believe that that information was of the same scope and specificity that the president or vice president or other national security leaders get once they're actually in office." He also indicated that the people conducting the briefing were more than capable of understanding what sorts of boundaries to information-sharing shouldn't and wouldn't be crossed.Chen also noted that while he himself had to get security clearance for the meeting, Romney didn't, as, he assumed, Trump would not have to. "The assumption is that a certain amount of sensitive information can be shared with the nominee because the nominee has been publicly vetted," he said.
At some point soon, we expect Hillary Clinton to receive a briefing, too. She'll probably enter with less skepticism about the intelligence apparatus behind the information she will receive, but the prospect of the briefing will likely make another large segment of population uncomfortable.
Fox News asked Trump that question specifically. "What do you say about the critics worried about you or Hillary getting classified information?" the reporter asked.
Trump only answered the second part of the question. "I'm worried about her getting it because of her e-mail situation," he said. "She can't keep anything private. I think that she -- I really mean this, by the way. I think her e-mail scandal is one of the worst I've ever seen." He then continued on that theme for a while. He suggested that the Department of Justice must be "ashamed" at not having charged Clinton for her use of a private server. He can ask them if they are in person; Trump's briefing was held at an office of the agency that made the suggestion not to do so.
The good news for all of those worried about either candidate receiving classified information is that the people conducting the process are very well versed in where and how that information can be used. Trump may not have confidence in the bold-faced names of the intelligence community, but those aren't the people conducting the briefing. Instead, Chen said that it is the people who maintain and detail critical information for the president on a daily basis.
That may still make you nervous, too. But either way they'll almost certainly be providing one of the two presidential candidates with those briefings every day starting on January 21, 2017 -- at which point there would be bigger things for the new president's opponents to worry about.