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Trump Is Said to Set Aside Career Intelligence Briefer to Hear From Advisers Instead
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Trump Is Said to Set Aside Career Intelligence Briefer to Hear From Advisers Instead
WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump has dispensed with intelligence briefings from a career analyst in favor of updates from political appointees including John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence and a longtime partisan defender of his, in the closing weeks of an election targeted by intensifying foreign interference, according to interviews.While the president has long distrusted the intelligence community and displayed frustration with head of the CIA and antipathy toward the FBI director, Ratcliffe has served as a more supportive figure. He secured influence by delivering on the president's political agenda, chiefly by declassifying documents related to the Russia investigation.Critics have attacked Ratcliffe's embrace of Trump, saying Ratcliffe cannot be trusted to deliver unvarnished facts in this highly polarized election and is focused on politics in what is supposed to be an apolitical role. Ratcliffe, who took the job in May, has shown little interest in the workforce or making sure the intelligence community's budget is being properly allocated, former officials said.Cliff Sims, a senior adviser to Ratcliffe, said the director had "kept his commitment to keep politics out of intelligence." Administration officials said there was no evidence that Ratcliffe was slanting intelligence or withholding information from the president.Trump has not had a briefing led by his designated briefer, veteran intelligence officer Beth Sanner, in more than a month, people familiar with the matter said. The last formal intelligence briefing led by Sanner was scheduled for Oct. 2, though administration officials said it was canceled after the president disclosed early that morning that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.Instead, Trump has relied on Ratcliffe to brief him two or three times a week, including one delivered Thursday, the people said. He supplements those meetings with informal briefings from Robert C. O'Brien, the national security adviser; Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff; and others.The shift toward briefings conducted by Ratcliffe reflects Trump's busy campaign schedule and an effort to reduce the number of people around him as he was sick with COVID-19, according to two administration officials. They also said the president was getting the information he needed, pointing to his fielding of questions about the state of the cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan.Early in Trump's presidency, aides shrunk the size of traditional intelligence briefings to prevent leaks, officials have said.Ronald Reagan was the last president not to regularly hear from his designated intelligence briefer. Trump is also the first president to rely primarily on the director of national intelligence to deliver his intelligence since the position was created in 2004."The president is doing something highly unusual, at least for the last 15 years," said David Priess, a former CIA officer and the author of "The President's Book of Secrets," a book about intelligence briefings.Directors of national intelligence have typically provided "color commentary" about the intelligence presented by the president's designated briefer, said Chris Whipple, author of "The Spymasters," a history of relations between the White House and the intelligence chiefs. Given Ratcliffe's history, Whipple warned, the director may be telling Trump only "what he wants to hear."Ratcliffe's displays of loyalty extended to public appearances, as well; he has appeared on Fox News defending Trump. And ahead of a nationally televised news conference last week where Ratcliffe and other officials revealed Iranian and Russian attempts to influence the election, he altered comments prepared for him to read from, according to two officials.Ratcliffe deleted a reference to the Proud Boys, the far-right group whom Iranian hackers pretended to be when sending spoofed emails to voters, and added the fact that Iran's effort was intended to hurt Trump's reelection campaign. The changes, which Politico reported earlier, did not alter the accuracy of the comments, intelligence officials said. But they made the remarks more palatable to Trump, who often bristles at discussions of election interference.Sims said Ratcliffe's influence was good for the intelligence community."Their unique insights are reaching the highest levels and informing policy decisions," Sims said.Trump's animosity toward the intelligence community dates to its early 2017 assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and developed a preference for his candidacy.But there is evidence that the president's unease with Christopher A. Wray, the FBI director, and Gina Haspel, the CIA director, is growing.Trump displayed his unhappiness with Wray on Twitter after Wray testified on Capitol Hill in recent weeks about two well-documented issues, Russia's election interference and far-right violent extremism, that the president has sought to de-emphasize.The president does not even like to hear about the FBI during intelligence briefings, people familiar with them said. Trump has told aides that Wray has actively undermined him and that he intends to fire him after the election, said people familiar with Trump's thinking. The president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., said recently that if his father won reelection, he has "to break up the highest level of the FBI."The White House did not respond to a request for comment about Trump's plans to dismiss Wray. The FBI declined to comment, but a senior bureau official pointed to a recent letter from associations representing current and former FBI agents backing Wray.Trump has also grown weary of Haspel, though aides are divided over whether he would oust her after the election."Director Haspel continues to proudly serve at CIA, and we'll leave the election season speculation to others," said Timothy Barrett, the agency's spokesman.Trump has privately expressed frustration for what he sees as a failure by Haspel to adopt his priorities, namely her opposition to Ratcliffe declassifying documents about the Russia investigation and related matters. While Haspel was said to express concern that their release would reveal the CIA's sources of information and methods of intelligence gathering -- among the agency's most closely held secrets -- Trump's allies saw the material as important political fodder for his reelection campaign.Last year, when O'Brien took over as national security adviser, Haspel was meeting with the president two or three times a week, according to a senior official. But when Richard Grenell, a close political ally of Trump's, took over as acting director of national intelligence in February, Haspel's attendance at White House briefings grew more infrequent, and it has tapered off further since Ratcliffe took up the post, according to current and former officials.Haspel's decreased trips to the White House are at least in part because of the pandemic and also a reflection of the fact that Ratcliffe has the lead on election interference, the most urgent national security issue of the moment, according to people familiar with the matter.Haspel has also avoided the spotlight and Washington power battles, allowing Ratcliffe to emerge as the more influential figure in the latest iteration of turf battles between CIA directors and directors of national intelligence."Trump clearly has a level of comfort with Ratcliffe," Priess said. "Ratcliffe is seen not just as the director of national intelligence; he is seen first and foremost as a political ally and someone who is on the president's team."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company
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