WASHINGTON (CNN) – President Donald Trump has never needed the advice of intelligence professionals more as he stares down dueling Damocles swords: a pressing deadline on whether to withdraw from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and a potential meeting with reclusive North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
That makes the President’s Daily Brief and Trump’s relationship with his those who brief him, a career intelligence professional, the CIA director and the director of national intelligence, all the more important.
While the new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a central role in those briefings as the head of CIA — a referee of sorts for loud, rambunctious shouting matches –Trump’s nominee to take over for him, Gina Haspel, is already picking up the reins.
“They have a good relationship. It’ll obviously be different than Pompeo’s. I think the President respects her as an intelligence professional, and that’s how they interact,” a senior intelligence official told CNN. “The nature of their relationship is based on a mutual respect.”
Pompeo has more of a friendly, political relationship with the President, while Haspel is more reserved and direct, sources tell CNN.
Haspel has stood in for Mike Pompeo on many occasions to attend the President’s daily intelligence briefing, a late-morning session where a career intelligence professional delivers the agency’s secrets and analysis — on things that happened overnight, that are coming up, and may be looming sometime in the future. She continues to do so now that Pompeo has left.
Additionally, the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, remains a solid presence in the room on most days.
“DNI Coats has a close working relationship with Gina Haspel and looks forward to her confirmation as CIA director,” Brian Hale, spokesman for Office of the Director of National Intelligence, wrote in a statement to CNN.
“Ms. Haspel enjoys the hard-earned respect of her intelligence community peers and the White House,” Hale said. “While the primary PDB briefer is a career intelligence professional, Ms. Haspel has often joined Director Coats for PDB sessions with the President and he will continue to welcome her to share the unique context she brings to these briefings.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is in charge of putting the President’s Daily Brief together, and it’s typically the director of national intelligence or one of his employees who attends the daily sessions and disseminates the knowledge gleaned each day — or at least that’s how it’s worked in the past.
Coats, often described by friends and colleagues as a quiet, reliable leader who isn’t easily shaken, has not forcefully placed himself in the center of the daily conversations — but Pompeo’s departure could be an opportunity for him to reassert himself. Coats has settled into the role in recent months as he’s worked on a “transformation” to streamline ODNI. Coats has so far prevented outsiders from picking apart the agency, the way Trump had much earlier hoped to do by hiring people like New York financier Stephen Feinberg.
Pompeo’s departure could leave a natural space for Coats to “reestablish the intelligence chain of command,” said Vince Houghton, intelligence historian for the Spy Museum, in an interview with CNN. “It’s all about the relationship between the principal and the briefer.”
The late morning daily briefings, lively, ping pong-style shouting matches where Trump plays attendees off each other, bouncing from topic to topic, have become a regular feature in the Oval Office despite early fears that Trump would reject the professional, fact-based reports from the intelligence community. Trump likes the particularly exciting details of intelligence, two sources familiar with the matter told CNN, but his interests are wide-ranging, and he asks a lot of tough questions.
Throughout Trump’s first year or so in office, the success of the lively gatherings, those sources say, had a lot to do with Pompeo and the friendly relationship he has with the President. Now that he’s Secretary of State, he will get his own briefing book full of its own diplomatic nuggets, and he likely won’t be available to go to the White House quite as often — though Trump can invite whomever he wants.
“Few people expected when this administration started that more than a year in, he’d still be getting regular intelligence briefings,” said David Priess, a former intelligence briefer and author of The President’s Book of Secrets. “Yet here we are … One of the few steady aspects of this administration is the President’s Daily Brief.”
“Now, how much of that is Pompeo? We don’t know. Removing him raises that legitimate question,” he told CNN.
Haspel is already familiar with the way the briefings work, and intelligence experts interviewed by CNN argue that if confirmed, she isn’t likely to change much about the way they’re structured, or the process President Trump prefers.
“The product isn’t going to change,” Houghton told CNN. Multiple other former CIA officials who have briefed the President before agreed.
However, Haspel certainly has a different personality than Mike Pompeo, and might bring a different energy when she is asked to contribute or respond to questions.
“She clearly will come from a more operational place than Pompeo,” said Larry Pfeiffer, former chief of staff to CIA and NSA Director Mike Hayden.
“Gina is a little more of a reserved individual. She isn’t a shrinking violet … but she’s more predisposed to doing everything she can to offer intelligence without adding any political commentary” unless there’s some chance a specific policy decision could hurt an ongoing CIA operation, he continued.
Priess thought Haspel’s operational experiences might actually be a benefit, because she can provide strong, visceral examples of experiences she’s had when discussing foreign cities with Trump.
“She has the background in operations to put things into context,” he said. “Like, ‘when I was on the streets of this capital, this is what I saw.’ … That’s something Pompeo couldn’t say. I have a feeling Trump would like the first-person anecdotes.”
A former senior intelligence official on the receiving end of Haspel’s briefings in the past said her sessions “will be no bulls—, no politics.”
“She used to brief us daily on the overnight [operation] developments when she was acting director of the [National Clandestine Service]. She will stick to the facts and she will know what is needed to be briefed and what isn’t,” the same official said.
It’s unclear whether Haspel will continue to be front and center in the briefing room if she is confirmed or if she might delegate some of those duties and spend more time at Langley.
“It will also depend on who becomes her deputy,” one former CIA briefer told CNN. “Maybe she will want to spend more time in the building and less time servicing POTUS. Maybe she and her deputy would rotate responsibilities.”