Dan Coats Spoke Truth to Trump. Now He’s Out.
The director of national intelligence won plaudits for laying out the intelligence community’s assessments on issues ranging from Iran to Russia.
Dan Coats attracted President Donald Trump’s ire on more than one occasion as the director of national intelligence, describing assessments on issues from Russia to North Korea that contradicted Trump’s own. On Sunday night, his time in office came to an end: Trump said, via Twitter, that Coats was stepping down, to be replaced by Republican Representative John Ratcliffe.
Coats lasted two years in office—longer than many of Trump’s other national-security Cabinet officials, and longer than any other director of national intelligence save one, establishing along the way a reputation of being willing to offer Trump conclusions he might not want to hear. Yet this wasn’t just a workplace spat between boss and employee. It fit Trump’s widely documented pattern of disinterest in information that contradicts his instincts, and his inclination to punish people who offer it. Coats isn’t the first victim of these attitudes, and he won’t be the last.
Ratcliffe, a vocal skeptic of the Mueller investigation into Russian election interference, won headlines for his aggressive questioning of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller during the latter’s testimony before Congress last week. Ratcliffe accused Mueller, in essence, of denying Trump due process, declaring that the president was not above the law “but he damn sure shouldn’t be below the law.” That display of partisanship directly precedes his nomination for a job that is supposed to be apolitical. Trump spoke glowingly of Ratcliffe in a tweet announcing his intent to nominate him for the post. “John will lead and inspire greatness for the Country he loves,” Trump wrote.
Coats was in a difficult position from the moment he took the job—leading a workforce that holds telling “truth to power” as an ideal while at the same time reporting to a boss whom an ally once accused of creating a “reality-distortion field” around himself. The DNI position itself, which was created after the 9/11 attacks to better coordinate intelligence sharing among different agencies, is one Trump reportedly considered eliminating altogether before appointing Coats. Some experts have called the DNI an ineffective additional layer of bureaucracy, and those in the job have struggled to navigate murky authorities and rival bureaucratic power centers like the head of the CIA.
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Indeed, Coats, a lifelong politician and twice-retired senator from Indiana, wasn’t an obvious pick for a position historically held by intelligence professionals. But two former colleagues of his told me in February it was clear he respected the work of intelligence professionals and took seriously his responsibility to present it faithfully to the president. This was no small thing, given that the president had set a hostile tone with the intelligence community before he was even inaugurated, invoking Nazi Germany when excoriating intelligence leaks on Twitter.
Coats’s commitment to the intelligence community’s Russia assessment even helped stoke the first rumors that he might leave, in the summer of 2018. During an onstage interview at the Aspen Security Forum at the time, he expressed shock that Trump planned to invite Putin to Washington, and offered gentle disapproval of Trump’s long, solo-but-for-translators meeting with the Russian leader. White House officials took their frustration to the press, with one tellingThe Washington Post that the intelligence chief had “gone rogue.” At the time, though, the worry was that Coats might resign, according to the Post. Trump praised him publicly afterward, Coats apologized, and people seemed to move on.
But then, in January 2019, it appeared Coats’s time in office was truly coming to a close. He, alongside other intelligence leaders, delivered congressional testimony on worldwide threats that undercut or contradicted statements Trump had made on issues including Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The president afterward scolded his intelligence leaders on Twitter for being “naive” on Iran in particular. At first, it appeared that incident was quickly smoothed over: After an Oval Office meeting with his intelligence chiefs days later, Trump tweeted about his confidence in the intelligence community and said the media had misrepresented their testimony.
Weeks later, though, reports surfaced that he was still furious with his DNI—and now it wasn’t about Iran; it was about North Korea. Trump has bet big on getting Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons; Coats, in his testimony, said it was unlikely the North would ever do so. Trump reportedly saw this as undermining his position weeks before a planned second summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “I think you have a classic example here where Director Coats is trying to make policy and not inform policy,” the president’s friend Chris Ruddy said on CNN in mid-February. The Washington Post followed up with a report that Trump, according to one adviser, saw Coats as disloyal. The paper pointed out that the anonymous complaints fit a pattern of previous administration departures, serving to put “the offending official on notice that their days are numbered.”
Coats lasted five months after that February 19 report. In April, he made a few brief cameos in the Mueller report. There was a discrepancy between Coats’s testimony and that of some of his staffers over whether Trump had asked him to speak to then–FBI Director James Comey about the investigation into the campaign’s ties to Russia—Coats said he had not been asked to do so. The revelation attracted little notice at the time, and Coats otherwise managed to stay out of the papers. But then summer brought new rumors that Trump was considering a replacement.
During his tenure, Coats won praise from former intelligence officials, including former colleagues, for what they saw as his determination to describe plainly the intelligence community’s position. By his own admission, he also tried to keep out of the news—and when he failed, as after Aspen and the January threat briefing, it became apparent why. When Coats made headlines, it was rarely good for him or his team.
His low-key approach also attracted criticism, however. He was not seen as a hands-on manager, and some argued that he needed to stand up for the intelligence community more stoutly in the face of attacks from the president. “When you are the head of an agency, and a group of agencies, that are in crisis, with profound ramifications for your nation, that is crying out for leadership,” Susan Hennessey, a former National Security Agency lawyer and the executive editor of the Lawfare blog, recently said on the Rational Security podcast. “And there is just nothing that we’ve seen from Dan Coats that looks anything like leadership to me.”
Others who worked with Coats said they felt he stood up for the intelligence community in subtler ways—for instance, by reiterating its positions without trying to finesse them for the president. “I don’t think that there would be any expectation that he would very vocally pick a fight with the president” over Trump’s criticisms, said one former colleague of Coats who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. “I think that there’s a recognition [that] then we would lose our access to the president.”