Trump Time Capsule #98: The Classified Briefing

Now-retired Army general Michael Flynn, testifying as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency two years ago. He accompanied Donald Trump to the recent classified briefing. Flynn has kept quiet about what he heard there. Donald Trump has not. (Gary Cameron / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last night, at the “Commander-in-Chief” forum, Donald Trump characterized what he had heard from intelligence officials in a classified briefing, and said why he believed the briefers agreed with his political perspective and shared his disdain for the current administration.

I am not aware of any previous nominee ever having done anything of this sort.

(In the modern era, nominees have gotten classified briefings to keep them up to date on crucial issues. Some have deliberately delayed or declined the briefings, precisely so they wouldn’t need to constantly remember what information was classified and thus shouldn’t be mentioned in public, and what was safe to discuss.)

According to a story by NBC, two former heads of the CIA share the view that Trump has crossed yet another line. As Ken Dilanian and Robert Windrem report:

Former CIA and NSA director Mike Hayden, who opposes Trump, told NBC News that in almost four decades in intelligence “I have never seen anything like this before.” [JF note: Hayden, a retired four-star Air Force general, is no one’s idea of a political lefty, and is in the camp of national-security conservatives who oppose Trump.]

“A political candidate has used professional intelligence officers briefing him in a totally non-political setting as props to buttress an argument for his political campaign,” said Hayden. … “The ‘I can read body language’ line was quite remarkable. … I am confident Director Clapper sent senior professionals to this meeting and so I am equally confident that no such body language ever existed. It’s simply not what we do.”

Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director who was President George W. Bush's briefer and is now a Hillary Clinton supporter, said Trump's comments about his briefing were extraordinary.

“This is the first time that I can remember a candidate for president doing a readout from an intelligence briefing, and it’s the first time a candidate has politicized their intelligence briefing. Both of those are highly inappropriate and crossed a long standing red line respected by both parties,” he said.


Mike Lofgren, the longtime Senate staffer and defense expert turned writer (The Party Is Over, The Deep State) expands on an implication of Hayden’s and Morell’s comments. That is, Trump’s comments are not merely indiscreet; they are also almost certainly untrue. Lofgren writes:

Two points:

1. Employees of the intelligence community who give briefings to high-level officials do not, repeat, do not advocate for their pet policies. These people would not be presidential appointees but almost certainly career civil servants (or the foreign or intelligence equivalent of a civil servant) If they were asked, “what do we do about X?” they would demur on the basis of it not being their department. They know they are not there to advocate for policies. This applies doubly for personnel briefing presidential candidates because of the extreme political sensitivity. As for criticizing the policies of their bosses to a human megaphone like Donald Trump, it is inconceivable they are that stupid.

Of course the briefers didn’t actually advocate anything, as Trump first implied, so he fell back on what philosopher Karl Popper would have called a statement devoid of factual content, because it cannot be falsified: the briefers’ body language told him they disagreed with Obama’s policies. Sure, it did …

What he’s managed to do is put those briefers in an extremely embarrassing situation. In a Trump presidency, we could expect a lot more of that: generals and civil servants being nonchalantly thrown under the bus as if they were contractors or tradesmen being stiffed on the bill for their services at Mar a Lago.

2. So what if Putin has an 82 percent approval rating? We can argue about the validity of that figure, but let’s assume it’s true. It is completely irrelevant with respect to which policies are ultimately in the U.S. national interest. I dare say Xi Jin-ping is similarly popular in China, particularly with regard to his aggressive assertion of sovereignty over virtually all of the South China Sea. But that popularity has no bearing on what US policy towards the matter ought to be, particularly when an international tribunal has rejected China’s claim. The point Trump is making is a pretty ominous one when you deconstruct it: authoritarian populist leaders ought to get their way because of their alleged popularity.


Here we are, 60 days until the election, with the nominee discussing the classified information he’s heard, and the GOP establishment from Ryan and McConnell on down still saying: He’s fine!