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u.s. politics

Donald Trump, presidential hopeful and now the presumptive Republican candidate, during a campaign event at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Ind., May 2, 2016.ERIC THAYER/The New York Times

Donald Trump, presumptive Republican presidential nominee and would-be successor to Barack Obama as commander-in-chief, says he is eager to start receiving high-level intelligence briefings.

Intelligence briefings – like the cluster of Secret Service agents providing close personal protection – are part of the perks and processes which prepare potential future presidents so they are ready to deal with a complex and dangerous world from the moment of inauguration when they can order the use of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Trump told the Washington Post this week he was looking forward to getting the briefings. Given his unorthodox foreign-policy positions and – at times – the limited basis in fact for some of his assertions, intelligence briefings might temper some of his public commentary.

For instance, Mr. Trump has insisted that he "watched thousands and thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheer as the World Trade Center fell," after the al-Qaeda attacks destroyed New York's Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

No such widespread celebration by Muslims occurred in New Jersey or anywhere else in the United States.

Mr. Trump has made similar inflammatory assertions about other key international issues although, in recent weeks, he has sought to project a more reassuring and measured posture.

In the wake of his string of six overwhelming primary victories culminating in Indiana earlier this week, Mr. Trump is also seeking to reassure Americans that he isn't a loose cannon.

"Let me tell you, I have the slowest trigger there is," Mr. Trump said, when asked whether his public musings about unpredictability and surprise were essential elements in dealing toughly with adversaries. His world view – including requiring allies such as Canada to spend more on defence if they expect to remain sheltered beneath the U.S. nuclear umbrella and accusing China of raping the United States economically – have raised doubts about his emerging foreign policy.

But Mr. Trump will have to wait at least until Labour Day – if previous practice is followed – before he gets intelligence briefings.

Mitt Romney, the last Republican nominee, didn't begin getting briefings from Central Intelligence Agency, Pentagon and Homeland Security officials until September, 2012.

Four years earlier, then-senator Barack Obama was already flying over Baghdad in July of the 2008 election year in a military helicopter with General David Patraeus in a high-profile foreign tour to enhance his stature. But Mr. Obama had already served on the Senate's Foreign Relations and Homeland Security Committees and was cleared for security briefings before he became his party's nominee. Like his Republican opponent Arizona Senator John McCain, who held highest-level clearances as a senior senator on key defence committees, Mr. Obama began getting top-level briefings in September, 2012.

Mr. Trump differs from his predecessors.

Every other major party candidate dating back to the Second World War had previously held either significant elected office or a high-level military rank before being selected as a presidential nominee and thus already had some level of security clearance.

Mr. Trump won't need to undergo the usual rigorous background checks required before any ordinary U.S. citizen is cleared for access to classified information. Just becoming the party's nominee entitles him to the high-level briefings. That may be fortunate for the billionaire property magnate. A string of marriages and bankruptcies creates an often insurmountable hurdle to getting and maintaining a high-level security clearance.

Classified briefings for presidential nominees date back to 1952 when then-president Harry Truman instituted the practice. Mr. Truman was impelled by the reality that, while he was vice-president to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he had been kept in the dark about the U.S. secret effort to build an atomic bomb until he suddenly became president on Mr. Roosevelt's death in 1945. That was only months before he faced the decision to obliterate two Japanese cities.

Mr. Truman ordered the CIA to brief both the Republican nominee, General Dwight Eisenhower, the former Supreme Allied Commander, and his Democratic rival, Governor Adlai Stevenson, in the fall of 1952. The tradition has been followed ever since.

Mr. Trump's foreign-policy expertise – or lack thereof – has also been the stuff of jokes. In his last appearance at the White House Correspondents' dinner, Mr. Obama took a few jabs at the New York real-estate developer.

"There's one area where Donald's experience could be invaluable – and that's closing Guantanamo. Because Trump knows a thing or two about running waterfront properties into the ground," Mr. Obama said.

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