His alertness never faded during the briefing, but his demeanor as well as his questions strongly revealed that he was uninterested in finding out what the Russians had done or holding them to account. Rather, Trump seemed most focused on challenging the intelligence and analysis underlying the judgment among the CIA, FBI, NSA, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that Russia interfered in the election and that the interference was intended to enhance his election prospects. It also was my clear impression—based on the thousands of such briefings I have conducted over more than three decades—that he was seeking most to learn what we knew and how we knew it. This deeply troubled me, as I worried about what he might do with the information he was being given.
During the briefing, Trump posited his own theories about election interference and voiced his skepticism that the culprit was Russia, articulating what would become a well-honed attack strategy of seeking to discredit any suggestion that his election was fraudulent or in any way influenced by Russian interference. “It could have been the Chinese,” he interjected several times during the briefing, seeking to deflect focus away from the unanimous assessment that the Russians were responsible. We each took turns debunking his counterclaims, as there was not a scintilla of doubt in any of our minds that what we witnessed in the run-up to the election was an intense, determined, and broad-based effort by the Russians to interfere in the election.
As the briefing was beginning to wrap up, Trump looked at me and made unsolicited disparaging remarks about human sources. “Anyone will say anything if you pay them enough. I know that, and you know that,” he said. At that moment, my thoughts went to the many foreign nationals who had worked with the CIA throughout its history and had courageously risked and even given their lives because they believed in America and what it stands for. I also thought of how every president I had briefed during my career was deeply appreciative of the CIA’s human sources, even if not all of the intelligence they provided was accurate.