Jon Huntsman, the US ambassador to Russia, said over the weekend on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the summit (he called it a "meeting") would be a chance for Trump to speak frankly to Russian President Vladimir Putin about election interference in 2016. "The bigger picture is we need to hold the Russians accountable for what they did, their malign activity throughout Europe as well," Huntsman said. "That's a part of the conversation that needs to take place."
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, in a speech at the Hudson Institute last Friday, made clear that not only had Russia interfered in the 2016 election but also that the country had continued its assault. "The warning signs are there," Coats said. "The system is blinking. It is why I believe we are at a critical point. Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack."
And then came this from Trump -- while standing next to Putin, no less! -- about whether he holds Russia responsible for its election interference:
"I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we've all been foolish. ... And I think we're all to blame."
"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. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be."
"So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."
There's no way to sugarcoat or soft-pedal what happened in Helsinki on Monday: Trump said that a) he raised the issue of Russia's election interference with Putin b) Putin denied it in an "extremely strong and powerful" way (whatever that means) c) Trump believes Putin rather than his intelligence agencies.
That's it. That's the whole story.
If you are Huntsman or Coats, you just watched your boss make you look like a fool (and that is being kind) on the world stage and in front of someone you believe is not a friend to the United States.
Think of it in a different context: You work in a widget shop. Your company is deciding between two rival plastic companies as your main manufacturer of widgets. You are the resident in-house plastics expert. Your boss sends you to a big meeting a day early to talk to the other participants about how he is going to announce that he is choosing "Plastics Plus!" over "Plastic N Stuff" because he trusts the research you and your team have produced that shows the former makes a product far superior to the latter. Then, the next day, your boss gets there and in front of the entire company announces he is going with "Plastic N Stuff." And maybe he even tells the company that you recommended "Plastics Plus" but he made a gut call to go with "Plastic N Stuff" after that company's CEO called him and told him how smart and handsome he was.
How would that taste? Not very good, right?
Would you quit? Some of that would depend on your financial status. Even if your boss did publicly humiliate you, you might need to just keep the job because you have to send your kids through school, pay the mortgage, etc.
Huntsman's father, who passed away earlier this year, was a billionaire. And Coats is a former two-time US senator from Indiana, who, at age 75, likely saw this DNI job as a sort of career-capper. And they both have plenty of other professional options.
And yet, both men are still on the job as of this writing.
Coats, in the wake of the Trump news conference, released a passive-but-not-really-that-passive-aggressive statement on Russian interference. "The role of the intelligence community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers," Coats said in a statement that was not OKd by the White House before being sent out. "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."
Huntsman, for his part, stayed silent -- although his daughter Abby, a Fox News personality, seemed to be talking for him to some extent when she tweeted: "No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus." John Weaver, a senior strategist in Huntsman's 2012 presidential bid, was more blunt -- telling The Salt Lake Tribune: "I know Ambassador Huntsman to be a man of honor and proud of his service to America. If he wants to preserve that honor, the greatest service he can do for the country he loves is to speak the truth he knows and resign with his integrity intact."
So why isn't Huntsman following Weaver's advice? And why is Coats still Trump's director of national intelligence?
It's worth noting that Trump's reversals on Huntsman and Coats came just over one day ago. The President hopped on a plane back to the US soon after the news conference with Putin ended. It's possible that conversations are happening even as we speak that might lead to one or both men stepping aside sometime soon.
But if they don't, the reason most likely cited by their allies will be something along the lines of "the job is too important to walk away from it." As in: No matter what Trump says -- and maybe because of what Trump says -- people like Huntsman and Coats, lifetime public servants with know-how and political savvy, have to stay in their jobs to avoid the possibility of the US careening into the ditch, in their minds. The pushback on that argument is that Trump is still the President and the final decision-maker. So all of the behind-the-scenes work that the likes of Coats and Huntsman are doing is for naught if Trump goes out and says whatever he wants.
The less favorable view on Huntsman and Coats is that they like their gigs as high-ranking administration officials and aren't going to give them up under any circumstances -- even ones as embarrassing as being made irrelevant by the President of the United States.
Whatever the reason(s), Coats and Huntsman are still members of the Trump administration. For now.