Intelligence briefings test Trump’s attention span
WASHINGTON — President Trump has blamed many others for his administration’s flawed response to the coronavirus: China, governors, the Obama administration, the World Health Organization. In recent weeks, he has also faulted the information he received from an obscure analyst who delivers his intelligence briefings.
Trump has insisted that the intelligence agencies gave him inadequate warnings about the threat of the virus, describing it as “not a big deal.” Intelligence officials have publicly backed him, acknowledging that Beth Sanner, the analyst who regularly briefs the president, underplayed the dangers when she first mentioned the virus to him Jan. 23.
But in blaming Sanner, a CIA analyst with three decades of experience, Trump ignored a host of warnings he received around that time from higherranking officials, epidemiologists, scientists, biodefense officials, other national security aides and the news media about the virus’s growing threat. Trump’s own health secretary had alerted him five days earlier to the potential seriousness of the virus.
By the time of the Jan. 23 intelligence briefing, many government officials were already alarmed by the signs of a crisis in China, where the virus first broke out, and of a world on the brink of disaster. Within days, other national security warnings prompted the Trump administration to restrict travel from China. But the United States lost its chance to more effectively mitigate the coronavirus in the following weeks when Trump balked at further measures that might have slowed its spread.
Trump, who has mounted a yearslong attack on the intelligence agencies, is particularly difficult to brief on critical national security matters, according to interviews with 10 current and former intelligence officials familiar with his intelligence briefings.
The president veers off on tangents, and getting him back on topic is difficult, they said. He has a short attention span and rarely, if ever, reads intelligence reports, relying instead on conservative media and his friends for information. He is unashamed to interrupt intelligence officers and riff based on tips or gossip he hears from former casino magnate Steve Wynn, retired golfer Gary Player or Christopher Ruddy, the conservative media executive.
Trump rarely absorbs information that he disagrees with or that runs counter to his worldview, the officials said. Briefing him has been so great a challenge compared with his predecessors that the intelligence agencies have hired outside consultants to study how better to present information to him.
Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, said that the idea that Trump was difficult in intelligence briefings is “flat wrong.”
“When you are there, you see a president questioning the assumptions and using the opportunity to broaden the discussion to include realworld perspectives,” Grenell said.
Richard Grenell (left), the acting director of national intelligence, and National Security Adviser Robert O’brien often sit in on the president’s briefings.