Americans often see provocative presidential tweets, like this one comparing the size of the nuclear buttons in the United States and North Korea:
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
What the public doesn’t see is the face-to-face briefing that CIA Director Mike Pompeo delivers most days to President Trump. In a relatively rare speech, Pompeo on Tuesday offered a window into the president’s daily briefing and pushed back against reports that Trump is not engaged.
“Nearly every day, I get up, get ready, read the material that’s been presented early in the morning and then trundle down from Langley [CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia] to the White House,” Pompeo said at the American Enterprise Institute.
Critics say the president sometimes seems less than fully informed on international matters, tweeting first and asking questions later.
Trump is an avid watcher of Fox News’ Fox and Friends program in the morning, and his early tweets sometimes track topics discussed on the show.
The Washington Post last month published a lengthy story describing the president as skeptical of intelligence he receives, particularly when it’s related to Russia. The report also said that information was presented in ways designed to not upset the president.
However, Pompeo offered a very different take.
“The president asks hard questions; he’s deeply engaged; we’ll have rambunctious back and forth,” Pompeo said of the 30- to 40-minute meetings that regularly include national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
The CIA director said the material presented to Trump is often placed in “three buckets.”
The first involves the most pressing developments.
“Each day we try to talk about something that’s of the moment, something that happened overnight,” said Pompeo.
He spoke just hours after he gave the Tuesday morning briefing, noting “you can imagine we would have talked about” Turkey’s military incursion in northern Syria, directed against the Kurdish militia there.
The Kurds are allied with the U.S., which has called on Turkey to exercise restraint.
The second bucket includes items on the horizon, like Trump’s planned trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, or an upcoming meeting with a foreign leader, the CIA director said.
In the third bucket, “we create some space to do knowledge building for the team,” Pompeo said. “Strategic items that won’t be in the news tonight or next week, but that we know are central to having a shared, fact-based understanding.”
Each president has his own preferences for the daily briefing.
Barack Obama preferred to receive a written copy that he read privately. Other presidents have received oral briefings by a CIA officer, though not usually by the director himself.
By all accounts, Pompeo has a good rapport with Trump that appears to have grown stronger through their morning meetings. Pompeo shares the president’s positions on confronting rivals such as North Korea and Iran and is blunt about his vision for the CIA.
“We ask our officers to risk their lives to steal secrets to protect America,” Pompeo said. “It’s our fundamental mission. We will never shy away from it. And we do so aggressively and without any apology.”
The CIA director said the president sometimes asks the agency to go back and get additional details.
He cited the humanitarian crisis in Yemen’s civil war, where the president asked about “the risk of cholera and the starvation that was taking place,” Pompeo said.
“He pushed us for a couple, three days, until we were able to deliver him a satisfactory picture where he then could then make a decision about which of our friends to call to try and make sure that that problem was diminished or at least mitigated,” the CIA director said.
This month, the United Nations World Food Programme has received four cranes, paid for by the U.S., in the port of Hodeidah, Yemen. They are intended to improve the delivery of aid shipped to the ravaged country.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.