Trump Is Said to Set Aside Career Intelligence Briefer to Hear From Advisers Instead

Letitia Denham

WASHINGTON — President 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. […]

WASHINGTON — President 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 C.I.A. and antipathy toward the F.B.I. director, Mr. Ratcliffe has served as a more supportive figure. He secured influence in part by delivering on the president’s political agenda, chiefly by declassifying documents related to the Russia investigation, moves said to please Mr. Trump.

Critics have attacked Mr. Ratcliffe’s embrace of Mr. Trump, saying Mr. 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. Mr. Ratcliffe, who took the job in May, has shown little interest in the work force or making sure the intelligence community’s budget is being properly allocated, former officials said.

Cliff Sims, a senior adviser to Mr. Ratcliffe, said the director had “kept his commitment to keep politics out of intelligence.” Administration officials said there was no evidence that Mr. Ratcliffe was slanting intelligence or withholding information from the president.

Mr. Trump has not had a briefing led by his designated briefer, the veteran intelligence officer Beth Sanner, in more than a month, people familiar with the matter said. The last formal intelligence briefing led by Ms. 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, Mr. Trump has relied on Mr. 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 Mr. Ratcliffe reflects Mr. 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 defending the move. 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 Mr. 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. Mr. 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 C.I.A. 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, the author of “The Spymasters,” a history of relations between the White House and the intelligence chiefs. Given Mr. Ratcliffe’s history, Mr. Whipple warned, the director may be telling Mr. Trump only “what he wants to hear.”

Mr. Ratcliffe’s displays of loyalty extended to public appearances, as well; he has appeared on Fox News defending Mr. Trump. And ahead of a nationally televised news conference last week where Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s re-election 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 Mr. Trump, who often bristles at discussions of election interference.

Mr. Sims said Mr. Ratcliffe’s influence with the president was good for the intelligence community.

“Their unique insights are reaching the highest levels and informing policy decisions,” Mr. Sims said.

Mr. Trump has also grown weary of Ms. Haspel, though aides are divided over whether he would oust her after the election.

“Director Haspel continues to proudly serve at C.I.A., and we’ll leave the election season speculation to others,” said Timothy Barrett, the agency’s spokesman.

Mr. Trump has privately expressed frustration for what he sees as a failure by Ms. Haspel to adopt his priorities, namely her opposition to Mr. Ratcliffe declassifying documents about the Russia investigation and related matters. While Ms. Haspel was said to express concern that their release would reveal the C.I.A.’s sources of information and methods of intelligence gathering — among the agency’s most closely held secrets — Mr. Trump’s allies saw the material as important political fodder for his re-election campaign.

Last year, when Mr. O’Brien took over as national security adviser, Ms. 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 Mr. Trump’s, took over as acting director of national intelligence in February, Ms. Haspel’s attendance at White House briefings grew more infrequent, and it has tapered off further since Mr. Ratcliffe took up the post, according to current and former officials.

Ms. 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 Mr. Ratcliffe has the lead on election interference, the most urgent national security issue of the moment, according to people familiar with the matter.

Ms. Haspel has also avoided the spotlight and Washington power battles, allowing Mr. Ratcliffe to emerge as the more influential figure in the latest iteration of turf battles between C.I.A. directors and directors of national intelligence.

“Trump clearly has a level of comfort with Ratcliffe,” Mr. 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.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.

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