Many braced for what they fear is inevitable, namely that the often shoot-from-the-hip Trump will say something from those briefings publicly. And yet, in the 64 years that presidential candidates have received such briefings, there is no precedent of a candidate publicly revealing classified information, explained David Priess, who wrote The President's Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America's Presidents from Kennedy to Obama.
So what happens if Washington’s biggest fear bears true and Trump spills a national secret?
No one knows.
“We have never had someone say something explicit from these briefings,” Priess told The Daily Beast.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is responsible for presidential candidate briefings, declined to comment or explain when asked by The Daily Beast, only adding to the mystery of what would happen in such a scenario.
Priess said that while there technically is a legal option of criminally charging Trump with revealing classified information, proving such a charge would be difficult. A presidential candidate could claim that he was repeating something he discussed with his advisers, not repeating a classified briefing.
Even if Trump doesn’t reveal top secrets, there already is animosity between him and the intelligence community. In the hours before receiving his first briefing, Trump told Fox News that he doesn’t trust the intelligence community, broadly citing their past failing.
“Not so much from the people that have been doing it for our country. Look what’s happened over the last 10 years. Look what’s happened over the years. It’s been catastrophic,” Trump said. “And in fact, I won’t use some of the people that are sort of your standards, you know, just use them, use them, use them. Very easy to use them, but I won’t use them because they’ve made such bad decisions.”
The decision to open the briefings to presidential candidates has been met with unprecedented controversy this election cycle. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid last month reportedly suggested the intelligence community “Fake it, pretend you’re doing a briefing, but you can’t give the guy any information.”
That same month, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan urged James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, to deny Hillary Clinton the candidate’s briefings, citing her mishandling of emails while Secretary of State. Clapper denied the request.
If the information released was relatively innocuous, a presidential candidate could get a strict admonishment. Worst case, the intelligence community could to cut off such briefings. And that would have a political cost, especially when, some argue, Trump has an advantage this election cycle when it comes to how the candidates handle classified information.
Earlier this summer, FBI Director James Comey described Clinton as being “extremely careless” with handling of classified information during her tenure as Secretary of State. Should Trump prove too careless himself by revealing classified information from such briefings, he would arguably make it hard for himself to exploit Comey’s assessment.
There are natural safeguards in place to stop dangerous information slipping out of a candidate’s mouth. Where the president receives what is known as a presidential daily brief, which includes sources and methods behind the intelligence, the candidate’s briefing does not include such details. So at least if a candidate reveals what’s in his/her brief, “it would not allow the candidate to reveal the name and position of someone providing the CIA information,” Priess explained.
Because the president receives such briefings daily, sometimes the president’s brief will have tactical details about an operation, allowing the commander in chief to follow day-to-day developments. The candidates briefing lacks such details as it only happens occasionally—and inconsistently.
Mitt Romney only received two such briefings in 2012. Jimmy Carter so enjoyed his classified briefings in 1976 that sometimes he sat through six-hour sessions, Priess said. Usually such briefings last no more than two hours.
The briefings are often more summations of the major security issues around the world—the war on ISIS, the situation in Syria, and North Korea and its nuclear weapons aspirations, for example. This election cycle the candidates are not expected to receive more than three briefings.
President Harry Truman first introduced classified briefings in 1952, after bearing the scar of suddenly ascending to the presidency upon the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt only to discover he had been in the dark as vice president. There was no formal structure then for sharing intelligence with the president, so Truman introduced the briefings as a courtesy, not a legal requirement.
“He became president and had no idea about the Manhattan Project,” Priess explained. Since the start of the PDB in the 1960s, such briefings are not as needed for an incoming president to do his job.
Rather, such briefings allow the candidates to be more informed about the implications of what they say on the campaign trail.
“The main motivation now is that it helps the presidential candidates from saying something that complicates things for the current president or for themselves” should they become president, Priess said.
Often advisers accompany a presidential candidate to the briefings, even though it usually takes months for citizens to receive a security clearance. On Wednesday, Trump, accompanied by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ret Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, received his first classified briefing. As a retired general and a governor, both advisers likely already had some level of security clearance.
Priess said that the officials will often conduct an expedited clearance process for presidential advisers who don’t have such clearance.
So far, Trump has only made one reference to receiving access to “top secret” information, when he told a Florida crowd that he had seen secret video of pallets carrying $400 million in cash being delivered to Iran in January as part of Iran deal.
He later conceded it was old video that was airing on Fox News.