Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats spent over a decade in the House and Senate and served as ambassador to Germany during the George W. Bush administration before reluctantly answering his friend Vice President-elect Mike Pence's pleas to join the Trump administration. It is a decision portrayed almost as a personal favor to a friend -- and one that he may now be regretting.
On Monday, President Trump issued a stunning rebuke to the US national intelligence community, and DNI Coats directly, when he was asked about the government assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. At a press conference after their two-hour-long meeting in Helsinki, Finland, Trump, standing next to Vladimir Putin, said he did not "see any reason why" Russia would be responsible for the election meddling.
"My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it's not Russia." It was a shocking statement coming from an American president standing next to a major adversary. Trump essentially sided with Putin, who has a long history of human rights abuses, over his own intelligence officers. Fellow Republicans, including Sen. John McCain and Mitt Romney, were quick to condemn it. McCain called Monday's press conference "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president."
In a remarkable response, Coats sent a statement not long after, standing by his findings. "We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security." The statement reasserting the intelligence community's assessment was unprecedented because it was not cleared through official White House channels and reveals a widening chasm between Trump and his intelligence chief.
Coats has long been a critic of Putin and, when he was a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he was banned from Russia when he called for stronger sanctions after Russia's annexation of Crimea. Undeterred from holding Russia to account, Coats said days ago that "the warning lights are blinking red again" regarding Russian cyber interference.
When I interviewed Coats last December to talk about the relationship between Vice President Mike Pence, a friend of his from Indiana, and Trump, I was surprised to discover how influential Pence was in Coats's decision to take the job. He reluctantly delayed retirement after Pence pleaded with him to accept.
"We need someone with experience," he says Pence told him. It was a jarring statement -- it's implausible to think of then-Secretary of State John Kerry taking the position because Obama's vice president, Joe Biden, begged him to reconsider. Usually there is reverence for the man elected president and not a lot of heavy convincing or arm twisting necessary. But it struck me that Coats, like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, sees himself as a bulwark against all-out chaos.
His job has not been easy. Once, when he brought up a highly sensitive national security issue with the president, Trump told him to "go talk to Jared [Kushner, his son-in-law] about that." Coats found it a little unsettling to be told to talk to a 36-year-old with no government experience, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
He has been forced to defend his work against a president who casts doubt on his credibility. But this is what Coats signed up for when he agreed to sign on with Trump -- and it wouldn't be surprising if he decided to walk away from the deal.
Since the summit, Trump has already tried to walk back his statements of doubt about the US intelligence community, tweeting Monday, "As I said today and many times before, 'I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.' However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past -- as the world's two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!" It may be too little, too late for the director of national intelligence.
Two years before Pence became vice president Coats told me they talked privately about their political futures. Pence was weighing whether to run for governor again or seek the presidency in 2016 and Coats was trying to decide whether to run for re-election to the Senate.
"We talked about the future and where God might lead each of us," Coats said. "I don't believe I would be in my current position had we not had this discussion." Now he probably wishes that talk had never happened.
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