On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was informed live on stage during an interview at the Aspen Security Forum that the White House had announced President Trump was inviting Vladimir Putin to visit in the fall. His off-the-cuff reaction to being blindsided by the news drew attention, not just from the crowd and the media, but from the President as well.
President Trump has retreated to his golf club in in Bedminster, New Jersey after arguably the worst week of his presidency. He started the week with a joint news conference in Helsinki with Putin and ended the week with news that Michael Cohen had recorded Trump talking about paying off a Playboy model.
Dan Coats’ nervous laughter and off message comment, viewed as not supporting the president by furious White House officials, has further drawn Trump’s ire at a bad time, Politico reports.
Trump, according to two outside allies, has grown exasperated with Coats, whom he blindsided Thursday when White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced on Twitter that the administration was working to bring Putin to Washington this fall. The news landed while Coats was in the middle of a live interview with NBC in Aspen, Colorado.
Republicans in Congress have managed to block measures backing the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. But the Trump allies told POLITICO that directly confronting, let alone firing, Coats — who before the latest blow-up over Russia was believed to be weighing his own retirement date — could create an uncontainable firestorm on Capitol Hill.
One former Trump senior official described the situation to POLITICO in one word: “meltdown.”
Coats put out a statement in which he repeated the assessment of the intelligence community that the Kremlin had interfered in the election on Monday. His comments were in response to President Trump stating in the Helsinki press conference that he didn’t “see any reason why it would be” Russia in spite of Coats and others saying it was. CNN reports that Coats felt he needed to correct the record.
Coats also said he needed to “correct the record” after he put out a statement on Monday — without consulting the White House — in which he reasserted the intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow had interfered in the election after Trump expressed doubts about that finding in the joint news conference with Putin.
“I just felt at this point in time that what we had assessed and reassessed and reassessed and carefully gone over still stands, and that it was important to take that stand on behalf of the intelligence community and on behalf of the American people,” Coats told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
He appeared stunned at hearing that the White House has begun discussions about inviting Putin to Washington in the fall. When told of the news, he asked Mitchell to repeat herself and said, “That’s going to be special.”
Coats also drew attention when he admitted he was not aware of what happened in the private meeting between the President and Putin on Monday nor was he asked for his input prior to the summit, CNN reported.
“I don’t know what happened in that meeting. I think as time goes by and the President has already mentioned some of the things that happened in that meeting, I think we will learn more. But that is the President’s prerogative.”
He also said Trump hadn’t asked him for advice before the meeting: “If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted, I would have suggested a different way, but that’s not my role. That’s not my job. So it is what it is.”
In addition, Coats stated he did not know about the Oval Office meeting between Trump and his national security team and Sergey Kislyak, then Russian Ambassador to the US, and Serei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, on May 10, 2017 and that it was “probably not the best thing to do”.
Coats is 75 years old and came out of retirement to take the position as DNI. He seemingly took the job out of a sense of duty, telling Senator Burr (R-NC) at his confirmation hearing, “I believe, if asked by your leader of your country to serve your country again, the answer needed to be yes.” Coats has kept largely out of the public eye until this this month, first drawing attention last week when he stated, “the warning lights are blinking red again” in regards to the severity of the cyber warfare threats the nation faces.
There is widespread speculation about Coats’ fate after his staunch defense of the intelligence community assessment of the Russian cyber attack in 2016 and his frank opinions about the president’s choice to meet with Putin in private. Politico reports that if Coats were to step down, filling the position would be complicated.
If Coats were to step down, Trump might struggle to get a successor confirmed, given the looming 2018 midterms and the Russia controversy. Observers have also long speculated that career intelligence professionals might not want the job, given the contentious relationship between Trump and the broader intelligence community.
Per CNN, if Coats were fired, he would have the support of his former Senate colleagues who are already pushing back on Trump’s behavior in Helsinki.
“If Coats is fired or pushed out, there will be a rebellion by his former colleagues on the Senate Intel Committee, many of whom are really reassured to know Dan Coats is there,” a Senate aide told CNN. “If he resigns in protest or otherwise leaves on his own terms, that’s one thing. But if he’s fired for simply telling the truth about a conclusion that was unanimously confirmed by the committee, there’s not going to be a whole lot of interest in providing political cover for the White House.”