After a holiday break where he didn’t receive a classified intelligence briefing, President Donald Trump was supposed to get one on Jan. 6, 2021—the day he incited a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. It didn’t happen. And then he didn’t get one for the rest of his presidency—and hasn’t received one since.
That unusual stretch where the sitting president didn’t receive a regular classified briefing is recounted in the latest version of a book published and regularly revised by the Central Intelligence Agency, which describes how spies update presidents on national security matters.
The situation in the waning days of Trump’s presidency was so uncommon that it actually caused concern among some administration officials that Trump was losing touch with reality, as he was getting unhinged advice on domestic issues from Justice Department attorneys and outside counsel that openly advocated rejecting election results.
"There was no certainty that he was getting objective, unbiased information in any other way,” one source familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast. “You couldn't trust that anybody around him was able to get that information to him in that period of time."
Unlike past presidents—who would read their daily intelligence report and occasionally get briefed by a CIA officer—Trump regularly refused to read the text, demanded “killer” pictures, and preferred to get updated in person by his daily briefer.
While past presidents took great interest in having the most up-to-date information on security challenges and foreign intelligence, the CIA book that was updated last month revealed that Trump spent two days a week receiving the latest sensitive information coming in from American spies all over the globe, in sessions running 45 minutes on average.
That came to a halt in late 2020, however, according to the CIA’s “Getting to Know the President” book, written by a revered former inspector general at the agency, John Helgerson.
Trump took a vacation break over the holidays when he traveled to Mar-a-Lago and told his briefer “he would see her later,” Helgerson wrote. The president then went two weeks without that pivotal one-on-one update, unlike his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, who was known to read the daily report even while vacationing in Hawaii.
During that break, Trump and his closest advisors kept busy trying to overturn election results in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by peddling disinformation and supporting conspiracy-laden legal challenges that eventually went bust. There was his infamous phone call demanding that Georgia’s top elections official “find 11,780 votes,” not to mention his despotic attempt to get the U.S. Supreme Court to declare Wisconsin’s election “unconstitutional.”
The White House finally scheduled a briefing when he’d be back in the nation’s capital. Trump was apparently too busy that day—spending Jan. 6 inciting a riot by delivering a speech and calling on his acolytes to “fight like hell” and march on the Capitol building just as Congress was certifying the 2020 election results.
The CIA book says, “the briefings were to resume on 6 January but none were scheduled after the attack on the Capitol.”
Liz Harrington, a spokesperson for Trump’s post-presidential office, pushed back against the CIA’s account with a statement saying, “This is Fake News.”
The break for the holidays and the two-week stretch after the insurrection meant that Trump went without the briefings for nearly his entire final month in office, a pause that experts found unprecedented.
“It’s not unusual to miss one here or there. But it's unusual to go several weeks without a briefing,” said Matthew Kroenig, a former intelligence official who developed strategies to counter China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and terrorist networks.
“Whether you like him or not, he was the commander in chief. As a nation, we would have been safer if he would have been getting those briefings,” said Kroenig, who is now the deputy director of the nonprofit Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
When asked by The Daily Beast, the CIA wouldn’t answer why Trump stopped receiving briefings during that time. Three former intelligence officials said that scheduling the briefings would have been up to the White House, which was busy during the last two weeks fighting off accusations of an attempted coup and preparing for an impeachment fight.
And unlike past presidents, who continue to get intelligence briefings after leaving office, Trump has remained in the dark post-presidency. President Joe Biden went on record in February saying that his predecessor should no longer receive them, implying that he had made the decision to cut off Trump. A Trump aide, who preferred to remain unnamed, told The Daily Beast a very different story on Tuesday.
“They never got cancelled by Biden, he didn’t cut them off,” the aide said. “President Trump didn’t feel it would be appropriate after leaving so he stopped them. He would have continued to get them if he wanted.”
Helgerson, a career spy who has since retired and was contracted to write the book, declined to provide additional details on the sudden halt in briefings to The Daily Beast on Monday, citing strict limitations imposed by the agency.
The CIA book’s new chapter also described at length how Trump himself posed a challenge for the nation’s intelligence officials, especially at the beginning of his presidency, when he was mired in accusations of suspicious ties to Russia and lashed out against the nation’s surveillance networks.
“For the Intelligence Community, the Trump transition was far and away the most difficult in its historical experience with briefing new presidents,” the book states. “Rather than shut the IC out, Trump engaged with it, but attacked it publicly.”
A subsequent portion quotes Obama’s outgoing director of national intelligence, James Clapper, saying that Trump was “fact-free” and prone to “fly off on tangents; there might be eight or nine minutes of real intelligence in an hour’s discussion.”
Some national security experts have pointed out that, while Trump stopped receiving the classified updates, many of those surrounding him still did. As Helgerson noted in his revised edition to the book, then-Vice President Mike Pence “was an assiduous, six-day-a-week
Reader” who would often join the president in his brief and spark a thoughtful discussion about pressing matters. Then again, by the end of his presidency Trump had turned on Pence and was notorious for relying on Fox News and Newsmax hosts for a steady stream of unverified information.
Larry Pfeiffer, a former CIA chief of staff who also ran the White House’s Situation Room during the Obama administration, stressed that keeping the president informed during his final weeks in office would have been pivotal. He said the month-long stretch without a briefing was the most alarming detail in the book’s latest update.
“Given how complicated the world is today, and given the kinds of decisions the president should be involved in in the national security arena, I'd be concerned that the president could find himself behind the curve,” he said.
“Iran could have planned some foolish attack, or you could have intel members of the incoming administration acting against current U.S. foreign policy,” he said, making a joking reference to the problems that plagued Trump’s own transition team in 2016.
Shannon Vavra contributed reporting.