In­tel­li­gence brief­ings test Trump’s at­ten­tion span

San Francisco Chronicle - - NATION - By Ju­lian E. Barnes and Adam Gold­man Ju­lian E. Barnes and Adam Gold­man are New York Times writ­ers.

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.

Erin Schaff / New York Times

Richard Grenell (left), the act­ing di­rec­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence, and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Robert O’brien of­ten sit in on the pres­i­dent’s brief­ings.

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