The Impossible Job of Speaking Truth to Trump
How do you offer intelligence to a president who’s not interested—and keep your job?
Dan Coats was nervous. Ahead of his very first threat briefing to Congress nearly two years ago, he was having trouble keeping straight what he could say in the unclassified part and what he had to save for the classified portion. He had retired from the Senate just months before—now he’d been thrust into an entirely different kind of job as the director of national intelligence. In the words of one former colleague, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, he was a “fish out of water,” horrified that he might get something wrong.
What he wasn’t worried about, this person said, was the kind of conflict with the president that erupted after his most recent threat briefing this past January, when he and other intelligence officials gave testimony on issues like North Korea, Iran, and Russia that contradicted statements Trump has made. Trump’s lingering anger about that testimony, ahead of his upcoming North Korea summit, has now revived speculation that Trump might fire Coats. But what Coats wanted to do two years ago, and by many accounts has faithfully tried to do since, was represent the views of the intelligence community to a president not always inclined to hear them. That is at once the key requirement of his job and potentially the one that puts him in the most peril.
Coats thus has one of the most precarious positions in an administration where few jobs are safe. He oversees an intelligence workforce that prides itself on the spin-free presentation of facts, for a president prone to punishing purveyors of unpleasant truth. He is a lifelong politician in what’s supposed to be an apolitical profession, trying to protect his workforce from the political attacks of his own boss. Yet Coats is, for now, one of the last national-security officials remaining from the original Cabinet Trump appointed, despite differences with the president that sometimes spill into public view. That’s partly because he really tries to stay out of public view.
He admitted as much in an interview with Andrea Mitchell at the Aspen Security Forum last summer. This was not long after the American president, standing next to the Russian one in Helsinki, undermined Coats by name, reiterating Putin’s denial of the intelligence assessment that the Russians had meddled in U.S. elections. Trump then drew what many saw as an insulting, even dangerous, equivalence between the two accounts. (“I have confidence in both parties,” Trump said then.) Coats told Mitchell that he’d spent a lifetime as a politician trying to get his name in the paper, and now he just wanted to keep his name out of it. He then promptly made headlines with his astonished reaction when Mitchell informed him that Trump had invited Putin to Washington.
He held on through the “Trump is fuming” palace-intrigue stories that followed. He held on through the Twitter eruption that came after his threat briefing last month, when the president accused the intelligence community of being naive on Iran. Coats, a midwestern grandfather of 10 whose personality inspires an affectionate but narrow range of descriptions, from “affable” to “amiable,” does so in part by minimizing the public appearance of conflict—the threat-briefing dustup, for example, was quickly blamed on the media. But as The Washington Post reported this week, the president has never been close to Coats, and remains angry about his recent testimony and other statements Trump sees as undercutting him.
To the disappointment of some, Coats is not the guy standing athwart Trump yelling “Stop,” whether over Russia or over the president’s attacks on members of his workforce. His efforts to stay out of the news also come at the risk of limiting transparency and undermining public confidence in intelligence, at a time when the president is questioning its credibility. But former intelligence professionals, including people who have worked with Coats, told me that he’s been effective in walking the difficult line between sticking up for his people and maintaining access to the president. His repeated message to the workforce has been: Do your job.
The risk if this approach fails is much bigger than one man losing his difficult position. In early skirmishes with the intelligence community, Trump liked to point out how they got it wrong on weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. This does show that intelligence can be fallible, and dangerously so. But the political pressure on information-gathering that characterized that moment—when policy makers made clear their preference that analysts should try to find evidence that Iraq had such weapons—also holds a different lesson: When intelligence becomes politicized, the results can be deeply harmful to national security.
Coats is fond of joking that he tried to retire—twice. The second time, he’d spent 34 years in public service, including a stint in the Army and one as then-Representative Dan Quayle’s chief of staff. When Quayle moved on to the Senate in 1980, Coats got elected to his seat in the House, where he served for much of the decade; when Quayle moved to the vice presidency in 1989, Coats took his seat in the Senate, and stayed there for much of the 1990s before his first retirement. Then George W. Bush, having considered and passed him over for the secretary-of-defense job, sent him to Germany to serve as ambassador. Coats arrived in the country shortly before the September 11 attacks. He later had to own up to the German government about a big intelligence mistake in the war on terror—the CIA rendition and torture of an innocent German citizen mistaken for a terrorist.
“I’ve had from the beginning great respect for his ability, and he has been a very good and loyal friend,” says Richard Lugar, who served alongside Coats as the senior senator from Indiana. Coats was a family-values Republican who President George H. W. Bush once described as giving voice “to the values of the heartland”; he took standard 1990s-era conservative stands like opposing the participation of gay people in the military. When he returned to the Senate in 2011, he focused on cutting spending, becoming known for his “waste of the week” speeches highlighting what he viewed as misspending. For his last one, in 2017, he singled out Medicaid coverage for hair replacement.
Coats, who declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this article, wasn’t a Trump guy at first. He endorsed Marco Rubio in the primary and initially scolded the then-candidate for uncouth behavior on the campaign trail—including his disparagement of the Indiana-born judge Gonzalo Curiel, who Trump suggested couldn’t rule fairly on a Trump University–related lawsuit because of his Mexican heritage. He criticized Trump for his proposed Muslim ban; he joined the outcry over the Access Hollywood tape, calling his comments “totally inappropriate and disgusting.” But though there were a few Republican figures who withdrew their endorsements, Coats was not among them.
By the time he delivered his second farewell speech from the Senate floor—which he sheepishly guaranteed, to his family sitting in the gallery, would be his last—he was speaking of his “bright hopes” for the nation.
After all, it had been a good month. His beloved Chicago Cubs had finally won the World Series for the first time in his lifetime. Republicans had not only taken the presidency but had kept Congress. There was a fellow Hoosier, the former Indiana governor turned vice president Mike Pence, in the White House. Coats hadn’t decided exactly what he was going to do yet, but he was pretty clear it was going to be in Indiana. He and his wife had bought a house in Indianapolis.
It’s not clear that he was eager to take the job. It wasn’t just the prospect of giving up retirement. The position of director of national intelligence was created in the years after the September 11 attacks, when the 9/11 Commission faulted different agencies for failing to share with one another information that could have helped stop the attacks. The role is more coordinator than boss of America’s 16 other intelligence agencies; Coats has likened it to putting puzzle pieces together to get a picture of what the agencies know. Michael Hayden, the former CIA director, once called it “a job with far more responsibility than authority.”
Nor was Coats an obvious choice. He had served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but he was not a lifelong intelligence professional like his predecessor, James Clapper. He was a retired politician headed to an avowedly apolitical workforce. There was, according to Coats’s former colleague, who served as an intelligence official, some internal skepticism, and perhaps even concern that he’d turn out to be more loyal to his boss than to his workforce.
There was also some relief. Even before his inauguration, Trump had set a hostile tone with the intelligence community, greeting intelligence leaks with tweeted fury: “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” Other appointees, like Rex Tillerson at the State Department, were coming to office with no government experience and no understanding of the agencies they would run. According to Nicholas Rasmussen, who reported to Coats for about a year as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center before leaving government, Coats was seen as someone who knew the intelligence community and respected the work of intelligence professionals. “And of course,” Rasmussen says, “that was not a given on the front end.”
Coats later explained, to Mitchell at Aspen, that he felt compelled to take the job, that giving something back to your country was reward beyond anything you could find in an easier or more lucrative job. But it was not fun. He said that he starts the day asking what went wrong while he was asleep. “I don't get to read about what went right,” he told Mitchell. “That's why I grab the sports page from The Washington Post hoping the Chicago Cubs had won last night. And then the day goes down from there.” He was chuckling as he said this, but it didn’t seem like he was totally kidding.
Coats is, by all accounts, a nice guy. One of the tougher questions at his confirmation hearings, from Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, began this way: “You’re one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.” Lankford wasn’t sure that was a good thing for the DNI to be; he wanted reassurance that Coats could be “tough.”
Coats endeavored to give it. But the question lingered. It was hard to picture a self-effacing double retiree going toe-to-toe with the blustering reality-show diva in the White House. He would, anyway, serve at the pleasure of the president. Was he really going to go to the mat for intelligence professionals in the face of a hostile boss? Could he command respect from someone inclined to dismiss—or worse, deride—the efforts of his workforce?
He was inheriting a tense relationship. Not long before he took the job, Clapper, his predecessor, had released a report summarizing the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally ordered the Russian meddling campaign in the 2016 elections, and had done so to benefit Trump. The president has several times cast doubt on these findings. Within days of tapping Coats for the DNI job in January 2017, Trump held a press conference at which he stated, “I think it was Russia” responsible for the election meddling, then reversed himself at the same event, saying, “It could have been others also.”
Trump has, however, always been emphatic that his campaign wasn’t assisted by Russia. But the question has driven his battle with one facet of the intelligence community in particular: the FBI. By Trump’s account, it was “this Russia thing, with Trump and Russia,” which he called a “made-up story,” that pushed him to fire then-FBI Director James Comey—setting in motion the investigation under Robert Mueller that has dogged him and undermined his presidency ever since.
The collusion question is Mueller’s domain, but Coats has never expressed doubt that Russia was behind the 2016 election interference. He has said it in public, and he said it to the president. One of his more forceful defenses of this conclusion came after Trump’s joint press conference with Putin in Helsinki last summer, where Trump said: “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.”
The response came in the form of a rare, succinct statement from Coats. The second of its two sentences read: “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.”
It was sober, even dry. But it was a dramatic counterpunch and as clear a public example to date of Coats’s approach to defending intelligence. Where retired intelligence figures like former CIA Director John Brennan had chosen direct attacks on Trump himself, Coats—who, after all, works for the guy, and whose workforce depends for its impact on him being able to share its analysis with the president—was low-key. He opted to reiterate facts.
Former intelligence officials who have worked with Coats told me that this practice is how he sticks up for the community. It lacks flair, but it’s honest. It lets lower-level officials and former officials—such as Peter Strzok and Lisa Page—get attacked without public rebuke. But it’s helped preserve Coats’s position so far.
“It would be pretty uncharitable of people to say he stood up for the [intelligence community] but he didn’t stand up with enough vigor,” says Rasmussen. “I don’t think that’s fair or realistic in the world we live in.”
One could still question the point of providing such facts to a president who is reportedly uninterested, determined to do what his gut tells him no matter what his analysts do or say. One could also argue that Coats, having been undermined publicly again and again, can’t effectively do his job and should resign. But Rasmussen has argued that Coats is not in the same position as, say, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who found that he couldn’t faithfully support the policies he was charged with carrying out. It’s not Coats’s job to execute policy, or even suggest it. Addressing reports that he might resign after Helsinki, he told Mitchell: “As long as I'm able to have the ability to seek the truth and speak the truth, I'm on board.”
He didn’t say what exactly might push him to jump ship.
Even for presidents who haven’t been accused of habitually distorting reality, the “truth to power” ethos can be unpleasant. It’s not fun to hear, for example, that the Taliban controls large portions of Afghanistan when you are determined to pull troops out, as Obama discovered before Trump. Presidents are not obligated to make policy based on intelligence assessments alone—and as examples from the Bay of Pigs to Iraq illustrate, intelligence officials can be wrong. As a matter of national security, though, presidents are obligated to at least consider the facts.
Coats understood this dynamic going in, and he even gave Trump the courtesy of a heads-up. Before one of his early briefings, Coats recounted later, he “took a big gulp of breath” and took Trump aside. “I said, ‘There are many times I'll be walking in here and bringing you information you might not want to hear or information you wish was different. And I'm going to—I just need to tell you my job is to give you the basic intelligence. You don't have to agree with it. You can ask for more information, but we have to have the kind of relationship that we can be open with each other.’”
Coats has also described the experience of briefing the president—how he will frequently interrupt with questions or detours such that the briefers have to keep returning to the central points. Anonymous officials were less charitable in describing the experience to Time magazine recently, saying that Trump displayed “willful ignorance” or reacted with anger to facts he didn’t like. Two of them told Time that they’d been warned not to tell Trump information that contradicted positions he’d taken in public—which would seriously undercut the entire point of intelligence briefings, and offer further evidence of a dangerous disinterest in crafting fact-based policies. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the report for The Atlantic.
Trump reacted angrily to one piece of this month’s intelligence threat briefing to Congress in particular, alleging that officials had underplayed the threat from Iran, when in fact they had not. Coats very clearly singled out Iran for its support of terrorism and its ballistic-missile inventory, which he called the largest in the Middle East. Iran was in fact one of the “big four” threats Coats detailed, also including Russia, China, and North Korea.
Coats and other officials did, however, describe assessments at odds with some of Trump’s statements. For North Korea, it was the fact of even calling the country a threat, when the president has tweeted that “there is no longer a Nuclear threat from North Korea.” For Iran, it was the judgment delivered by the CIA director that the regime was technically in compliance with the nuclear deal Trump condemned and then withdrew from—though this wasn’t a direct contradiction, since Trump’s problem from the beginning was the ”decaying and rotten” pact itself, wholly apart from the question of whether Iran was complying. On ISIS, it was the warning that the group still commands thousands of fighters and is returning to its guerrilla roots, though Trump at one point declared ISIS “defeated” in Syria before shifting his story.
On Russia, it was the contention that Moscow had not only interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections, but had also tried to meddle in the 2018 midterms.
Coats is not the only official to contradict Trump on factual assessments—it can be difficult not to, given that the president so frequently contradicts himself. Administration officials have offered different accounts than the president on a variety of issues, from Syria to China, and Trump has even differed from himself from one speech or tweet to another, or even within the same press conference. Some officials, like National Security Adviser John Bolton, opt to deny the contradictions.
Coats doesn’t typically do that, but he does not play up the conflict, and he can appear visibly uncomfortable revealing it. He doesn’t finesse the assessments either. “Nobody would ever call Dan Coats slick,” says Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee who served with Coats and questioned him at the January threats hearing. “I’m not being disparaging. I think he gives his answers, makes his assessments, not in a calculating way.” Coats does not offer what Warner called an “alternative reality” to fit the president’s priorities; in his most recent threat briefing, for example, he made no mention of what Trump has characterized as a threat from migrants coming across the southern border.
“I value our intelligence community,” Trump tweeted following a meeting with intelligence officials concerning the January threat briefing. But if he felt reassured on intelligence officials’ view of the world, that didn’t mean he was inclined to stop criticizing individual personnel. Three tweets later, on the same day, he attacked by name the wife of the Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, whose security clearance he has threatened to revoke, along with those of several former intelligence officials.
Trump’s threats to security clearances—especially of a still-serving official like Ohr—may actually be more consequential to the intelligence workforce than his expressions of disregard for their product. In a profession that often deals in classified information, livelihoods depend on clearances. Then, of course, there was the five-week government shutdown, which stalled investigations and delayed paychecks at the FBI. The FBI Agents Association released a reportduring the shutdown in which field agents testified to damaged morale. Otherwise, it’s hard to measure the impact the president’s attitude has had across the 17-agency intelligence community.
Still, it’s never pleasant to work hard and get slammed by your boss in public. Coats has spoken glowingly of the intelligence workforce as a group of dedicated, purpose-driven professionals. He hasn’t scolded Trump in public for his attacks, but has said that he has tried to convey to him what the intelligence community’s role is. He has said that he won’t tolerate political influence on intelligence work. “There's a lot of swirl, political swirl, going around,” he toldMitchell at Aspen about how he speaks to his workforce. “Just do your jobs. Our goal is to make unpoliticized information necessary for our policy makers to make good decisions.” The attitude has won him praise from people who have worked with him, including former intelligence officials I spoke with. But it’s also earned him criticism from others, who feel he should stand up more forcefully to Trump.
“He’s kept his agency’s head down and vanished like a stick insect,” says Benjamin Wittes, a contributor to The Atlantic and the editor in chief of the influential national-security blog Lawfare. “I think it’s great.” But the time may be running out on that strategy. After all, there’s a long line of senior national-security officials in the Trump administration who, whether for reasons of principle or for angering the president, are no longer there.