President Trump has stopped reading the traditional presidential daily briefing document, and instead opts for an oral overview of intelligence matters every two to three days. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
For much of the past year, President Trump has declined to participate in a practice followed by the past seven of his predecessors: He rarely if ever reads the President’s Daily Brief, a document that lays out the most pressing information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies from hot spots around the world.
Trump has opted to rely on an oral briefing of select intelligence issues in the Oval Office rather than getting the full written document delivered to review separately each day, according to three people familiar with his briefings.
Reading the traditionally dense intelligence book is not Trump’s preferred “style of learning,” according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
The arrangement underscores Trump’s impatience with exhaustive classified documents that go to the commander in chief — material that he has said he prefers condensed as much as possible. But by not reading the daily briefing, the president could hamper his ability to respond to crises in the most effective manner, intelligence experts warned.
Soon after Trump took office, analysts sought to tailor their intelligence sessions for a president with a famously short attention span, who is known for taking in much of his information from conservative Fox News Channel hosts. The oral briefings were augmented with photos, videos and graphics.
After several months, Trump made clear he was not interested in reviewing a personal copy of the written intelligence report known as the PDB, a highly classified summary prepared before dawn to provide the president with the best update on the world’s events, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
Administration officials defended Trump’s reliance on oral sessions and said he gets full intelligence briefings, noting that presidents have historically sought to receive the information in different ways.
Michael Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Trump “is an avid consumer of intelligence, appreciates the hard work of his briefers and of the entire intelligence community and looks forward every day to the give and take of his intelligence briefings.”
Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement that “any notion that President Trump is not fully engaged in the PDB or does not read the briefing materials is pure fiction and is clearly not based on firsthand knowledge of the process.”
He added that Trump’s routine sessions with senior intelligence advisers “demonstrate his interest in and appreciation for the value of the intelligence provided. In fact, President Trump engages for significantly longer periods than I understand many previous presidents have done.”
The PDB, which has been described as a newspaper with the smallest circulation in the world, is drawn from material provided by U.S. spies, satellites and surveillance technology, as well as news sources and foreign intelligence agencies.
Several intelligence experts said that the president’s aversion to diving deeper into written intelligence details — the “homework” that past presidents have done to familiarize themselves with foreign policy and national security — makes both him and the country more vulnerable.
Leon Panetta, a former CIA director and defense secretary for President Barack Obama, said Trump could miss important context and nuance if he is relying solely on an oral briefing. The arrangement also increases pressure on the president’s national security team, which cannot entirely replace a well-informed commander in chief, he said.
“Something will be missed,” Panetta said. “If for some reason his instincts on what should be done are not backed up by the intelligence because he hasn’t taken the time to read that intel, it increases the risk that he will make a mistake.”
“You can have the smartest people around you — in the end it still comes down to his decision,” he added.
The top-secret intelligence report, which dates in its current form to the Johnson administration, is made up of individual “articles” written by career analysts, mostly from the CIA. The PDB is so tightly controlled that intelligence officials maintain a log to record when the briefers provide a copy of the document to a principal and when they retrieve it, several officials said.
Mark Lowenthal, a career intelligence officer who served as a CIA assistant director from 2002 to 2005, said Trump does not have to read the PDB if he is getting an extensive oral briefing. He warned, however, that a short briefing on a few select items would leave the president ill-equipped for major decisions over the long term.
“Then he’s really not getting a full intelligence briefing,” Lowenthal said. “You need to get immersed in a story…