Now, as lawmakers of both parties demand a similar level of detail from Trump, the GOP Benghazi report presents a road map of sorts. It’s also a potent talking point for Congress if the White House blocks oversight efforts.
Capitol Hill Democrats, in particular, are demanding to know whether Trump received intelligence indicating Russia paid Taliban-linked militants to assassinate American service members. Trump has denied being briefed on the subject, even as White House officials confirmed to lawmakers that the matter was included in Trump’s written daily brief in February. Trump reportedly rarely reads his written brief and relies instead on oral briefings.
House Democratic leaders, who have been briefed on the Russian bounties by the White House and intelligence leaders in recent days, have emerged with sharp criticism of Trump’s reading habits. After a high-level briefing Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a joint statement saying, “Our Armed Forces would be better served if President Trump spent more time reading his daily briefing.”
Republicans, too, have raised questions about whether Trump was — or should have been — fully informed about the intelligence his agencies collected, which has appeared with increasing specificity in news reports, particularly in The New York Times, in recent days.
“[T]his Congress should want to know who knew what, when. And the administration is claiming that the president didn’t know — but if he didn’t know, it’s a big deal,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said Monday.
The House select committee on Benghazi — which featured Republicans like Jim Jordan and Mike Pompeo, who have gone on to become some of Trump’s closest allies in Congress and his Cabinet — interviewed Obama’s briefer on April 29, 2016. The briefer, who wasn’t identified by name, was described as the “executive coordinator” of Obama’s daily brief and detailed her briefing practices for the committee.
“[D]uring the weeks that I produced the PDB, I would produce it, and then they would drive me to the White House, and I would … brief Jack Lew first, who was the chief of staff,” the briefer said, noting that she typically arrived at the White House by 7 a.m. “And if the President required a brief during that day or chose to take a brief, then I would give him a brief, and if not … then the [director of national intelligence] would brief him.”
The briefer said when Obama didn’t require an in-person briefing, she would hand her written briefing book to the White House usher to deliver to him instead. When the president was traveling, she would join and brief him personally. “That was my responsibility whenever we would fly,” she said.
The briefer then described her specific handling of Obama’s brief on Sept. 12, 2012, the morning after the Benghazi attacks. That day, the president was not traveling, so her driver dropped her off at the White House around 7 a.m., she handed the booklet to the usher and briefed Lew in person.
Republicans, at the time, raised serious alarms about the PDB process, noting that erroneous information, as well as some sloppy errors, were discovered in what they said should be an “airtight process.”
“Whether these errors are simply a coincidence or part of a larger systemic issue is unknown,” the GOP report concluded. And they said those errors “raise major analytic tradecraft issues that require serious examination but are beyond the purview of this Committee.”
The GOP also used the Benghazi episode, in which a U.S. ambassador, a U.S. Embassy official and two CIA contractors were killed, as a cudgel against Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. The Washington Post reported that several deaths had been linked to the explosive intelligence on the Russian bounties.
Democrats on the Benghazi committee included Reps. Adam Schiff and Adam Smith, who both attended the White House’s Tuesday briefing for Democratic lawmakers on the Russian bounty intelligence. Schiff, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, and Smith, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, are both expected to play a role in any congressional investigation or oversight on the Russian bounty controversy.
During the Benghazi negotiations, the Obama White House blocked any inquiries about what Obama and other White House officials actually said during his briefings, and Obama himself did not respond to a list of 15 questions the committee delivered, including one that specifically asked whether he personally received and read his PDB books on Sept. 12 and Sept. 13. But most of the information was provided through painstaking talks and without subpoenas.
“In total, the White House made nine productions of documents to the Committee,” according to the panel’s final report. “To be clear the White House did not provide all of the information the Committee requested but the Committee was granted access to information no other congressional committee accessed.”
A similar level of inquiry on the Russian bounty intelligence would answer Democrats’ growing question about whether Trump actually received an oral briefing on the day in February that the Russian bounty intelligence was included in his written report. It would also indicate how the briefer determined which portions of the written brief to convey to the president, whether she briefed other members of the senior White House staff and if other members of Trump’s inner circle regularly read the PDB and discussed it with Trump.
Though there is little precedent for investigating the PDB process, President George W. Bush famously declassified a portion of his Aug. 6, 2001, daily briefing that described Osama bin Laden’s intent to strike inside the United States, a document that foreshadowed the Sept. 11 attacks a month later.
Michael Morell, who led the CIA during the Benghazi assault and had previously served as Bush’s PDB briefer, described the PDB process at length in his book, “The Great War of Our Time.”
Morell wrote that he began compiling intelligence at around 4 a.m. every day — organizing, synthesizing and ordering them to present to the president and his inner circle, which he said almost always included Vice President Dick Cheney, then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and chief of staff Andy Card. Occasionally, Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, would join the briefings, a right generally afforded to former presidents.
Morell said his in-person briefings with Bush were freewheeling, with the president often interrupting to ask questions about how agencies had obtained certain pieces of information so he could judge their reliability.
Former Trump advisers have described the president as the antithesis of Bush, often talking over his briefers and holding intelligence findings in low regard.
But Trump’s allies say he’s similarly probing in his own briefings.
“This president, I’ll tell you, is the most informed person on Planet Earth when it comes to the threats that we face,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday.