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2016 Election

What Really Happened at Donald Trump's Intelligence Briefing

NBC News has exclusive details about the session where Trump claims he read "body language."
Image: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during the Commander in Chief Forum in Manhattan
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during the Commander in Chief Forum in Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 7, 2016.MIKE SEGAR / Reuters

As U.S. officials cast doubt on Donald Trump’s claim he read the “body language” of intelligence officials at a recent briefing, NBC News has learned exclusive details of what unfolded in the room — and of reported tension between one of Trump's advisers and the briefers.

Six current and former senior officials said they were aware of friction between retired Gen. Michael Flynn, one of the advisers Trump brought to the briefing, and the officials who conducted the briefing. Four sources with knowledge of the briefing — including two intelligence officials who spoke to people in the room — said Flynn repeatedly interrupted the briefers until New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie intervened.

Both Christie and Flynn denied the officials' version of events, with Flynn calling the report "total b__s___" and Christie calling it "a complete work of fiction."

The Aug. 17 briefing is attracting fresh scrutiny after Trump said at NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum that he divined that intelligence officials were “not happy” with President Obama.

"What I did learn," Trump said, "is that our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow ... what our experts said to do ... And I was very, very surprised.

"I could tell — I'm pretty good with body language — I could tell they were not happy."

Related: Clinton Slams Trump But She Blabbed About Briefing, Too

Timothy Barrett, a spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence, declined to comment Thursday on Trump's characterization.

However, a U.S. official pointed out that intelligence officers don't give policy advice, so it would be inaccurate to say that Obama failed to follow the advice of the intelligence community. A second U.S. official said analysts are trained not to allow their body language to betray their thinking.

Related: First Read: Trump's 9 Controversial Remarks in 24 Minutes

Meanwhile, four people with knowledge of the matter told NBC News that one of the advisers Trump brought to the briefing, retired general Mike Flynn, repeatedly interrupted the briefing with pointed questions.

Two sources said Christie, the New Jersey governor and Trump adviser, verbally restrained Flynn -- one saying Christie told Flynn to shut up, the other reporting he said, "Calm down." Two other sources said Christie touched Flynn's arm in an effort get him to calm down and let the officials continue.

Christie denied that he had silenced or restrained Flynn. "The comments and actions attributed to me in this story about General Flynn are categorically untrue. I did not make the statements alleged nor did I touch General Flynn's arm for any reason during the briefing. The report is a complete work of fiction."

Flynn told NBC News the report was "total b__s___" and added, "These are anonymous sources. They're lying."

In an interview on TODAY, Flynn was asked whether he saw what Trump claims he did at the briefing.

"I sure a very specific way," Flynn said, though he went on to say that his conclusion was based not on body language but on intelligence officials drawing distinctions between the content of their briefing and White House policy.

The intelligence briefing is given to the presidential nominee from each party.

There were fewer than 10 people in the room at Trump's briefing, and all the briefers were career intelligence officials, including both military officers and civilians, U.S. officials told NBC News. A former senior intelligence official said the briefing team is always the same for both presidential candidates. None were political appointees, and none were among the team that briefs President Obama daily. The names of the briefers have not been made public.

The briefing was conducted at the "secret" level of classification, and it did not cover sources and methods or covert operations.

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials who asked that their names not be disclosed told NBC News that many members of the current intelligence community -- leadership rank and file -- were angered by Trump's comments Wednesday night, and the possibility that he may have disclosed details of his intelligence briefing or attempted to politicize it.

Former CIA and NSA director Mike Hayden, who opposes Trump, told NBC News that in almost four decades in intelligence "I have never seen anything like this before."

"A political candidate has used professional intelligence officers briefing him in a totally non-political setting as props to buttress an argument for his political campaign," said Hayden. "And his political point was actually imputed to them, not even something they allegedly said. The `I can read body language' line was quite remarkable. ... I am confident Director Clapper sent senior professionals to this meeting and so I am equally confident that no such body language ever existed. It's simply not what we do."

Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director who was President George W. Bush’s briefer and is now a Hillary Clinton supporter, said Trump's comments about his briefing were extraordinary.

"This is the first time that I can remember a candidate for president doing a readout from an intelligence briefing, and it’s the first time a candidate has politicized their intelligence briefing. Both of those are highly inappropriate and crossed a long standing red line respected by both parties," he said.

"To me this is just the most recent example that underscores that this guy is unfit to be commander in chief," Morell continued.

“His comments show that he’s got no understanding of how intelligence works. Intelligence officers do not make policy recommendations. It’s not their job and anyone running for president should know that. The people who briefed him, I’m pretty sure were career analysts — senior intel professionals. There is no way that they would in any way signal displeasure with the policies of the president.”

That said, intelligence officials have asserted they warned the administration repeatedly about the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria well before Obama ordered a bombing campaign. And as NBC News has reported, senior intelligence officials in 2012 proposed a covert operation to oust Bashar Assad in Syria, but Obama decided not to move forward with it.

-- Josh Meyer contributed reporting to this story