Trump’s comments on intelligence briefings ‘astonish’ former intel officials

Experts say they can think of no precedent for what Trump said.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak about school choice, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, at Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy in Cleveland. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak about school choice, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, at Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy in Cleveland. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

During last night’s Commander-in-Chief forum, Donald Trump made it sound as though the intelligence officials who have been briefing him haven’t hid their disdain for President Obama.

Asked by NBC’s Matt Lauer whether anything he learned during his first two briefings shocked him, Trump said “Yes, there was one thing that shocked me.”

“What I did learn is that our leadership — Barack Obama — did not follow what our experts… said to do,” Trump said. “I was very, very surprised in almost every instance. And I could tell — I am pretty good with the body language — I could tell they were not happy our leaders did not follow what they were recommending.”

Three people who have worked in the intelligence community told ThinkProgress Trump’s comments are both unusual and implausible.

Paul Pillar, a former high-ranking CIA analyst who worked for 28 years in the intelligence community, said he “can’t remember any time where a candidate has said anything about” an intelligence briefing publicly.

“The proper, standard thing for any candidate to do would be to say nothing about it — to at most acknowledge a briefing happened,” he added. “It’s quite out of order to start talking about body language.”

Pillar views Trump’s remarks as crossing a line.

“This is a courtesy provided by the intelligence community to the candidate to help keep them as smart as possible on things the agencies are following, and to turn it around and try and take electoral advantage of it by reading something into it, like [officials] not liking what the current administration is doing, is simply not in order,” he said, adding he’d “be very, very surprised any intelligence analyst would indicate anything about pleasure or displeasure with current policies.”

Pillar’s sentiment was seconded by Bruce Riedel, senior fellow and director of the Brookings Institute Intelligence Project.

“I don’t know of any precedent,” Riedel wrote in an email. “It’s also questionable that intelligence briefers would criticize policy decisions even by body language.”

Alan Makovsky, senior national security fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former senior staff member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, characterized Trump’s remarks as “astonishing.” (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent part of CAP.)

“Speaking as a former member of the [intelligence] community, I think it would put a cloud over the careers of the briefers if people took Trump’s comments seriously,” he said. “If the body language stuff was believed by their superiors, it’d be the last briefing they ever got.”

During a press conference today, Hillary Clinton characterized Trump’s comments as “totally inappropriate and undisciplined,” adding she’d “never comment on any aspect of an intelligence briefing that I received.”

The Washington Post reports that during his first briefing on August 17, Trump was accompanied by Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) and retired U.S. Army Gen. Michael Flynn.

“Trump and Christie listened politely but Flynn repeatedly interrupted the briefers and disparaged their work, according to former officials familiar with the matter,” the Post reports.