Dan Coats, the Intelligence Chief, Finds His Voice. Will It Anger Trump?
Posted July 17, 2018 9:06 p.m. EDT
Throughout Dan Coats’ career in public service, as a senator and now as the director of national intelligence, he has prided himself on working the backrooms, not seizing the bully pulpit.
That has changed over the past several days. Understated but forceful, Coats has emerged as the public defender for the intelligence agencies he oversees, supporting their conclusions about Russia’s election meddling in the face of President Donald Trump’s skepticism, including his extraordinary comments Monday challenging the agencies’ assessment of Moscow’s interference.
Coats generated quiet cheers from current and former intelligence officers for his insistence that the agencies are offering facts and honest analysis, not political judgments. While Trump has wavered on his acceptance of Russian election interference, Coats has insisted that Moscow is a continuing, and growing, threat. “These actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy,” Coats said in a speech Friday.
It is a high-wire act. To be effective, Coats cannot be seen by Trump as blocking or contradicting him, although the president has long complained about the intelligence agencies. But his role is to avoid politics and present fact-based conclusions, and any intelligence chief who strays from that will lose the confidence of the analysts, officers and agents who work for the sprawling national security establishment.
“People ask me if my old boss is having fun,” said Dean Hingson, who served as chief of staff to Coats when he was a senator from Indiana. “I say ‘fun’ is too strong a word.”
Trump sought on Tuesday to clarify his remarks, saying he misspoke a day earlier when he appeared to take the word of President Vladimir Putin of Russia over the intelligence community’s assessment that Putin personally directed an influence campaign seeking to denigrate Hillary Clinton and eventually favoring Trump in the 2016 election. The president said he accepted the intelligence agencies’ conclusions and had “on numerous occasions noted our intelligence findings that Russians attempted to interfere.”
Still, Trump’s original assertion gave a degree of credence to Putin’s denials, prompting Coats to issue a statement that the intelligence agencies “have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”
Coats’ office, according to a former intelligence officer, informed White House aides of the statement but did not clear the language with them, an unusual step. An administration official confirmed that the White House did not sign off on Coats’ comments but denied anything unusual about the process.
Coats’ comments did not name Trump but were clearly aimed at rebutting the president. He was clearly treading carefully, one former intelligence agency chief noted, ensuring that his criticism of the president was not explicit but making his defense of the agencies clear.
“He heard the comments, took some time to digest them and decided to go out and make a defense of the intelligence community,” said Shawn Turner, a former spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in the Obama administration.
The contretemps prompted speculation in Washington that Coats could step down. Such a decision is far from clear, said Michael Hayden, who ran the CIA and National Security Agency under President George W. Bush and has emerged as a critic of Trump.
“It’s a tough choice for him: Am I helping America by staying or am I helping more by leaving? That’s now a meaningful question that he is going to have to answer,” Hayden said.
Turner said Coats demonstrated political courage by speaking out, particularly given Trump’s record of attacking those in his administration he views as disloyal. “It is more important than ever for officials to stand their ground and speak out when the president does something counter to our beliefs,” Turner said. Trump administration supporters said too much was being made of the president’s comments at the news conference with Putin, pointing to his clarification. Trump said his remarks were a misunderstanding that arose when he stumbled over a “double negative.”
But some Trump allies viewed Coats’ recent comments suspiciously. They said they believe Coats has been too lenient toward the so-called deep state and view him as an obstacle to Trump’s goal of overhauling the intelligence agencies to make them smaller and more efficient. These officials said they believe Coats is too quick to trust intelligence officers who may be pursuing an agenda separate from the administration’s.
Coats served as a Republican in the Senate originally from 1989 to 1999, first appointed to fill Dan Quayle’s seat when Quayle became vice president. A social conservative, Coats was credited with helping develop the compassionate conservative agenda embraced by George W. Bush in the 2000 campaign.
During Coats’ second tour in the Senate from 2011 to 2017, Hingson said, he was much more focused on national security, serving on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Deeply critical of Putin’s government, Coats was banned from Russia in 2014 for his criticism of its incursions in Ukraine.
“You can call it a Cold War view if you want, but he views Russia as an adversary,” Hingson said.
At the beginning of the Trump administration, Coats was largely overshadowed by Trump’s first CIA director, Mike Pompeo, a former congressman who enjoyed the public spotlight and is ideologically close to Trump.
While the director of national intelligence is supposed to sit atop the intelligence hierarchy, Pompeo’s close personal relationship with the president had the effect of appearing to sideline Coats. Pompeo’s promotion to secretary of state and the elevation of Gina Haspel, a career intelligence officer used to the shadows, to the top role at the CIA, has created an opening for Coats.
His speech Friday warning about Russia’s continued cyberattacks on the United States, coming hours after the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers in the election interference and days before the Trump-Putin summit meeting, signaled a more prominent role.
The emergence of Coats, said a former CIA official, should be a signal for Trump of what the administration position on Russian interference should be. Still, the official said, Coats’ newfound outspokenness could draw unwanted attention from the president, who has complained about other Cabinet members who displease or publicly defy him. Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense, has carved out a role where he avoids contradicting the president directly but sticks to establishment foreign policy views, like support for European allies and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, that are at odds with Trump’s instinctual positions.
Unlike Mattis, a storied Marine general with a fierce following among current and retired military personnel, Coats does not have the kind of deep support that could give him political cover.
“Coats is in a precarious position because the president does not take too well to people who disagree with him,” Turner said. “But he has made the admirable decision to defend the people he leads.”