Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats appeared last week with NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell for an interview at the Aspen Security Forum, and their chat was more lively – and newsworthy – than many expected.As Rachel noted on the show last week, Coats made headlines when he was caught completely off-guard by news, which broke during the interview, that Donald Trump had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to the White House for a visit this fall. At the same event, Coats expressed some concern about the American president siding with Putin over U.S. intelligence; Coats conceded he was opposed to Trump’s insistence on a private one-on-one meeting between the two presidents; and he acknowledged that it wasn’t a good idea for Trump to welcome two Russian officials into the Oval Office last year, at a meeting in which Trump leaked sensitive intelligence.
Taken together, it was hard not to get the impression that the nation’s chief intelligence official doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with his boss. Indeed, the Washington Post reported that White House officials “were in an uproar” over Coats’ interview, in part because it seemed at times as if the DNI was “laughing at the president.” One said Coats had “gone rogue.”
Greg Sargent made a compelling case that Team Trump’s perspective was needlessly skewed: the president’s aides were bothered by Coats’ tone, but what should’ve concerned them was the substantive disagreements between the DNI’s warnings and the administration’s actions.
And yet, there was Coats over the weekend, apparently trying to mollify the White House by clarifying his earlier comments.
“Some press coverage has mischaracterized my intentions in responding to breaking news presented to me during a live interview,” Coats said in a statement. “My admittedly awkward response was in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticize the actions of the President.”
“I and the entire intel community are committed to providing the best possible intelligence to inform and support President Trump’s ongoing efforts to prevent Russian meddling in our upcoming elections, to build strong relationships internationally in order to maintain peace, denuclearize dangerous regimes and protect our nation and our allies,” Coats said.
There was no official word as to whether Coats volunteered to issue this statement, or whether the West Wing strongly recommended it, but it’s easy to imagine the latter.
The point of the walk-back, of course, was to reinforce the idea that the president and his chief intelligence official are on the same page. But for all the interest in “awkward” rhetoric and press characterizations, the fact remains that the policy gap between Trump and Coats remains unchanged.
Because while the DNI says he wants everyone to know he didn’t intend to show “disrespect” for the president, Coats’ statement made no effort to walk back the substantive areas of disagreement he addressed on Thursday in Colorado.
It’s entirely possible, of course, that Trump won’t care. The president may very well be more concerned with perceptions and tone than Coats’ intelligence assessments. In fact, if Trump were inclined to prioritize the intelligence director’s substantive concerns, last week’s fiasco in Helsinki almost certainly wouldn’t have happened the way it did.
But the fact remains that Trump should care about these policy differences, even if the White House is principally focused on whether Coats is using the president as some kind of punch-line.