Should Trump Be Given Classified Foreign Intelligence Briefings As A Candidate?

Civil Rights Policy Brief #221 | By: Rodney A. Maggay | March 14, 2024

Featured Photo by Indy Silva for US Renew Democracy News, 2024


Policy Summary: In 1952 President Harry Truman began the custom of providing classified foreign intelligence briefings to presidential candidates. His purpose was to inform presidential candidates of sensitive foreign policy issues and developments so that if they became President the candidate would be prepared to handle and manage any foreign policy developments. The classified foreign intelligence briefings were also meant to allow the candidates to take care in speeches and meetings to not say anything that could be construed as a change in policy or an undermining of an agreement with another nation. Since Truman’s decision to provide classified foreign intelligence briefings to candidates, most have accepted them. The classified briefings are provided to candidates after they are officially nominated by their political party (usually August). To date, no third – party presidential candidate has received a classified intelligence briefing during a campaign cycle.

On June 8, 2023, a Miami grand jury indicted former President Donald Trump and the next day the indictment was made public. The indictment listed thirty – seven (37) felony counts against the former president. The charges included conspiracy to obstruct justice, corruptly concealing a document or record and willful retention of national defense information. A subsequent revised indictment contained thirty – two (32) felony counts with similar charges. A trial date was scheduled for May 20, 2024 although a postponement (due to Mr. Trump’s other criminal trials) appear likely. Special Prosecutor Jack Smith argued for a July 2024 trial date while Mr. Trump’s lawyers argued a trial should not occur until after the election. Judge Aileen Cannon, who is overseeing the case, has not ruled on whether the trial will commence on May 20, 2024 or be postponed. LEARN MORE

Policy Analysis: President Truman’s rationale for providing presidential candidates with classified foreign intelligence briefings was an act that had good intentions – to ensure that if the candidate became President that he or she would be fully informed to act on important foreign policy matters from their first day in office. However, the situation with President Trump and his 2024 campaign for President has raised a very serious question.

If a candidate is facing multiple felony counts of mishandling classified, top secret and secret documents related to national defense matters, should that candidate receive classified foreign intelligence briefings during the campaign?

This is a situation that no one could have imagined. While other high ranking officials have mishandled classified documents, such as former Vice – President Mike Pence and current President Joe Biden – both officials were not charged. That was likely due to their prompt cooperation with investigators and a conclusion in Biden’s case that his actions did not meet the legal standard to determine that he is liable. But in former President Trump’s case his actions did not appear to be inadvertent or honest mistakes. His retention of boxes of classified, top secret and secret documents at his Mar – a – Lago home had been the subject of contentious negotiations for their return to the government that began in June 2021. However, Trump appeared unwilling to comply with the National Archives request for their return. That necessitated the involvement of the Department of Justice and the FBI, which then resorted to a search warrant to try and retrieve the boxes and documents. Nothing has been confirmed but there are strong indicators that the documents contain war and battle plans for certain regions and, most disturbingly, defense and nuclear capabilities of the U.S. and a number of allies.

Mr. Trump’s legal situation thus raises the question as to whether he can be entrusted with a classified foreign intelligence briefing as candidate Trump. Other officials have commented on this emerging campaign issue and there appears to be bipartisan support to limit what the American intelligence agencies should reveal to Trump during the campaign. John Bolton, a former National Security Advisor to Trump during his first term, has suggested that the former President not be given any foreign intelligence briefings as a candidate because of his indictment in the classified documents case. In the alternative, he has suggested to have the briefings given only to Trump in person and no one else. He suggests this in order to ensure that if there were a leak, it would be for certain that Trump was the one who leaked it. And on the other side of the political spectrum, Rep. Adam Schiff (R-CA), a former Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has called for potential briefings to Donald Trump be “dumbed down” and that Trump should only be given what is absolutely necessary because of his possible “criminally negligent” handling of classified documents before.

Fortunately, former CIA officials John Brennan and Larry Pfeiffer have weighed in and said that briefings will likely not be as highly classified as what President Biden receives daily and that their colleagues will likely limit information in the briefings in order to prevent their potential misuse by Mr. Trump. A possible solution would have President Biden deny the classified foreign intelligence briefings to candidate Trump. But the White House has stated that they will not do this as they do not want to politicize the issue. So while it seems likely that Mr. Trump will receive the classified foreign intelligence briefings as a candidate, his actions as well as the outcome of his classified documents case in Florida, will inform whether providing classified info to Mr. Trump should have been more closely scrutinized and whether it should have been done at all. LEARN MORE

Engagement Resources

  • Associated Press – a timeline of Mr. Trump’s classified documents case and the significant incidents that led the former President to be criminally charged.
  • Politico – report on the concerns current and former intelligence officers have about providing Mr. Trump with classified foreign intelligence briefings as a candidate.

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact

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