The director of the CIA spoke at length Tuesday about how President Donald Trump receives his regular intelligence briefings, a topic of some debate among the Administration’s critics.
During Trump’s first year in office, it’s been reported that the president receives his intelligence briefings “impatiently,” prefers strong visuals to subtle nuances and becomes so upset about information about Russian meddling that briefers tend to skip over it. That’s led critics to charge that Trump is “incurious.”
But speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that Trump regularly engages with high-level intelligence during their meetings.
“He finds value,” said Pompeo, one of the few people who meets with Trump for the briefings. “We’re able to convince him that the facts that we are delivering impact his capacity to inform his mission.”
The briefing happens “not daily” but “near daily” and usually lasts 30-40 minutes, Pompeo said during a panel with AEI resident fellow Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush.
“We have to make sure that the information we are delivering meets the threshold for the President of the United States and is delivered in manner which he can grasp sufficiently to actually be able to act upon,” said Pompeo, who has routinely defended his use of “killer graphics” in the presidential briefing materials.
Pompeo added that Trump understands the briefings as well as professionals who have worked intelligence for 25 years. “He’ll bring up something that I briefed him on weeks or months ago,” Pompeo said. “I’ve seen this time and time again.”
Pompeo said the briefing team delivers information to the president information in three categories.
“Each day we try to do something that is of the moment,” Pompeo said. “For instance today, you can imagine we would have talked about what’s taking took place in Afrin … the Turks moving south out of Syria. Then we’ll try also to talk about something that is coming up, so for instance preparing the president for his trip to Davos, or a foreign leader who is coming to visit, or provide him with material that we know he is going to confront in the days or weeks ahead.”
The third area is for “knowledge building” to address longer-term strategic items.
As he has often said in public remarks, Pompeo reiterated that Trump is “deeply engaged,” “asks hard questions” and they have “rambunctious” back and forth in the briefings.
Pompeo offered two examples as evidence of Trump’s personal engagement.
Trump was “very concerned” about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he said, especially starvation and the risk of cholera when Saudi-led coalition closed land, sea and air ports last year.
“He kept pushing us,” Pompeo said, “what was the real layout, what was happening in the port, what was possible given the configuration of forces on the ground.”
Pompeo also said Trump pushed on Venezuela. “The president was dissatisfied with the description of the situation as we had laid it out,” Pompeo said. “We kept coming back in with some financial issues he wanted more clarity on, who had the money, where was the debt, the timing of that.” Soon after, he said, the Administration issued new sanctions on Venezuela, isolating Nicolas Maduro’s regime.
After he was elected in 2016, Trump argued that he did not need a daily intelligence briefing. “You know, I’m, like, a smart person,” he said on Fox News Sunday. “I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years … But I do say, ‘If something should change, let us know.’”
At AEI on Tuesday morning, Pompeo distanced himself from policy decisions, as he often does to avoid an appearance of partisanship after his outspoken tenure in Congress. “One of the glories of being CIA director is you are out of the policy world,” he said when asked when the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay would see any new inmates.
Pompeo also said he has reduced the number of decisions made by the CIA director by 40%, outsourcing them to speed up the agency’s ability to act and encouraging this attitude across the agency. “It was reckless to do it the other way,” he said. “If we do that we will be as fast as our adversaries.”