President Donald Trump’s feud with his intelligence agencies has flared ever since he took office already chafing about their conclusion on Russian electoral interference. The latest casualty: Dan Coats, who today leaves his post as director of national intelligence, with his deputy, Sue Gordon, reluctantly following him out the door. Joe Maguire now steps in as acting director, and whoever takes over the spot permanently could be, for good or ill, an unusually consequential figure—precisely because of the president’s hostility.
Coats’s departure followed what’s by now a familiar pattern: First came the rumors about his fraying relationship with Trump, then reports about various names being floated for his position, all interspersed with direct attacks by the president on the intelligence community—including, after Trump announced Coats’s retirement, his assertion that intelligence agencies had “run amok” and needed someone to “rein it in.” But Coats’s tenure was remarkable for its longevity—he departs as one of the last original members of Trump’s national-security Cabinet still in the same job, despite Trump’s reported ambivalence about him personally, mistrust of intelligence in general, and skepticism of the very utility of the position Coats held.
The office of director of national intelligence was founded to coordinate intelligence across 16 agencies, after the 9/11 Commission found critical coordination gaps and missed clues that, if heeded, could have stopped the attacks. But it’s always had skeptics who view it as an unnecessary additional layer of bureaucracy, as well as defenders who maintain that its coordination role is still essential and that eliminating the role would once again leave America vulnerable to dangerous missed signals. Trump has reportedly considered eliminating the office altogether. So the next permanent director could serve as the strong advocate the intelligence workforce needs under this president, and a voice of clarity to Congress and the public amid presidential obfuscation—or he could see the position further sidelined, perhaps all the way into oblivion. Not long before handing in her own resignation, Gordon highlighted the key problem. “This is a world where the threats are to and through information,” she told Michael Morell of the Intelligence Matters podcast, citing Russian electoral interference via disinformation to divide and confuse Americans. “I can think of no greater threat to America than actions that would make us not believe in ourselves.”
So how do you serve a president who routinely shares misinformation and misleads the public? And how do you observe the intelligence community’s bounds of secrecy and discretion while keeping the public informed about the real nature of threats—from Russia to North Korea or the Islamic State—that Trump denies or downplays?
“One of the DNI’s main responsibilities in any administration is to ensure the objectivity of intelligence analysis, and intelligence collection, and intelligence in general,” says Morell, who is also a former deputy director of the CIA. This involves both making sure intelligence analysts aren’t spinning their results to please policy makers and making sure policy makers are communicating accurately with the public about what they’re being told.
“A big part of the internal piece, which doesn’t get done very well very often, is that when a policy maker mischaracterizes intelligence in a public forum, or in a private forum … that one of your responsibilities is to correct them,” Morell says. “There are ways to do that without embarrassing the president or getting into a public feud, but it’s important the public know the truth.”
Policy makers will often encounter intelligence that conflicts with their political priorities; their aversion to hearing it is a long-standing problem made worse by Trump, Dennis Blair, who served as Obama’s director of national intelligence from 2009 to 2010, told me. “It’s hard to walk down the middle when the politicians want complete support for whatever decision they make, and they regard intelligence as a form not so much of information, [but of] support,” he said.
There’s the added challenge of the White House’s current occupant. “You have a president who lives in his own alternate reality, which is so divorced from the world” that an expert on Russia, China, or North Korea knows, Blair said. Given Trump’s reputation for ignoring or contradicting intelligence assessments, one could conclude it doesn’t matter what the intelligence briefers tell him—he’s likely to go his own way regardless. “If you’re the DNI, or the leadership, you can’t let that be the end state,” Blair said. “You have to try to present the truth as you know it in a way that will make a difference.”
One way Coats handled the dynamic was to try hard to stay out of the news. But the biggest headlines he did generate highlighted the gaps between the president and his intelligence community on issues like Russia, North Korea, ISIS, and Iran. The president downplayed Russian election interference; Coats was forceful about just how severe a threat the intelligence community saw in it. The president at various times declared there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea, and that ISIS had been defeated; Coats’s January congressional testimony on worldwide threats flatly contradicted those conclusions, saying it was unlikely North Korea would ever give up its nuclear program and highlighting the continuing threat of the Islamic State. (Just this month, a Pentagon inspector-general report noted that over the spring and early summer, “ISIS carried out assassinations, suicide attacks, abductions, and arson of crops in both Iraq and Syria. In addition, ISIS established “resurgent cells” in Syria and sought to expand its command and control nodes in Iraq.”)
Coats may not have wanted the attention, but these gaps were noteworthy. Had someone else been giving that testimony—perhaps a Trump stalwart like Republican Representative John Ratcliffe, who Trump briefly tapped to take over Coats’s position—these issues might not have come to light in quite so stark a fashion. Granted, there was already plenty of public reporting on Russian interference, North Korean intransigence, and Islamic State resilience. But it was meaningful to know that, despite the president’s protestations, his own intelligence reinforced what the public reporting showed. And this also underscored the president’s tendency to mislead.
This is why the appointment is so consequential, argues Joshua Geltzer, who was a senior director for counterterrorism on Barack Obama’s National Security Council. “I think at least in these circumstances, the public-facing aspects of the job take on a way higher significance than they normally do,” he told me. He cited Coats’s unusual public statement reiterating the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russian interference after Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, in which the president seemed to lend weight to Putin’s denials of interfering. “That’s not just standing up for an intel judgment, it’s also standing up for your workforce,” Geltzer said.
Gordon was legally next in line to serve as acting director before she resigned, writing to Trump that he should have his own team and clearing the way for Maguire’s appointment. Trump praised her service on Twitter, but also had reportedly blocked her from delivering an intelligence briefing to him. Gordon is widely respected, having spent decades in the CIA and other agencies. She summed up her attitude this way on Morell’s podcast: “I think that intelligence has the opportunity to be the hero of this moment as much as it has ever been. And I know that can sound different to people who listen to the stories about how the relationship may or may not be with the administration or what’s going on with the Congress,” she said. “But the truth is, the fundamental craft of intelligence that’s about wisdom, insight, and clarity delivered so that our leaders can decide before events [decide] for them, is just as important.”