President Trump interrupted a classified briefing early in his presidency to ask top intelligence officials if they would like a milkshake.
Politico: “Does anyone want a malt?” Trump said, calling a waiter into the room. “We have the best malts, you have to try them.”
The highly classified briefing, which focused on Afghanistan, took place at Trump’s New Jersey golf club several months into his presidency.
The incident became legendary inside the CIA, said three former officials.
It was seen as an early harbinger of Trump’s disinterest in intelligence, which would later be borne out by Trump’s notorious resistance to reading his classified daily briefing, known as the PDB, and his impatience with the briefers.
But what initially seemed like mere boredom — which demoralized intelligence officials but could potentially be managed by including pictures and charts in briefings to hold the president’s attention — later morphed into something the officials saw as more sinister: an interest in wielding intelligence as a political cudgel.
Whether selectively declassified by spy chiefs he installed for their loyalty, or obscured from congressional and public scrutiny if it conflicted with his preferred narrative, intelligence became just another weapon in the president’s arsenal.
Trump’s actions, and the endless partisan battles over the Russia probe and impeachment, have left the intelligence community bruised and battered.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s advisers and allies in Congress are already thinking about what a heavy lift it will be to restore morale inside the agencies, legitimacy on Capitol Hill and public trust in the intelligence community’s leadership should Biden defeat Trump in two weeks.
Trump faced criticism over the summer after The New York Times reported that US intelligence officials concluded Russia offered bounties to Taliban-linked Afghan militants to kill US troops and that the Trump administration didn’t act in response.
The White House initially said Trump was never briefed on the intelligence, though multiple reports suggested otherwise.
In an interview with Axios in July, Trump said he had not confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin over the intelligence assessment in several phone conversations.
Some have pointed to the president’s apparent uninterest in intelligence as a factor in his response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Intelligence officials repeatedly warned Trump of the threat of COVID-19 early in 2020, but he ignored them and downplayed the virus to the US public.
“The president didn’t want to hear it,” John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, told Insider’s political correspondent Sonam Sheth in August. “He didn’t want to hear bad news about his friend Xi Jinping — he didn’t want to hear about the Chinese cover-up about what was actually happening with the virus in China.”
Bolton added that Trump “didn’t want to hear that this disease could be so threatening that it could impair the US economy significantly and therefore his ticket to reelection.”
The Biden campaign has been considering a couple of veteran national security hands who could serve in senior intelligence roles in a Biden administration and hit the ground running to repair what they see as the damage Trump has done to the intelligence community over the last four years, people familiar with the internal discussions said. Among the names is former acting CIA director Michael Morell, former Obama national security adviser and close Biden confidant Tom Donilon, former Obama deputy national security adviser Avril Haines, former Deputy NSA Director Chris Inglis, and former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Robert Cardillo.
“There is no question that Biden and his team will have an urgent task in restoring faith, trust, competence, and morale in the intelligence community,” said former NSA general counsel Glenn Gerstell, who retired earlier this year. “It’s going to be a huge effort.”
He added that a Biden administration will need to pull off a revolution in how the intelligence community thinks about and responds to a changing world—complex, transnational threats like climate change and pandemics—following the reduced focus on the war on terror and the onrush of new technologies.
“That transformation, which should have occurred in earnest years ago, has to be accelerated under Biden,” Gerstell said, “or else we will be so far behind China we won’t be able to ever catch up. With ODNI having four directors and being so distracted, we mostly blew four years at a time when every moment counts.”
Trump’s prevailing attitude toward the intelligence community, current and former officials said, has been that he knows better—and that the agencies therefore need to be constrained to better align with his priorities.
He has also repeatedly made clear his distrust of the intelligence community, from comparing them to Nazis before he was even inaugurated to discarding their analysis of Russia’s 2016 election interference in favor of Vladimir Putin’s denials.
He often uses quotation marks around the word “intelligence” in his tweets to signal his disdain.
And he has been reckless with classified information, from revealing highly sensitive secrets about ISIS to the Russians in the Oval Office to tweeting out sensitive images of Iran taken by one of the U.S.’s most advanced spy satellites.