Spy Boss Coats, Once Eager For The Spotlight, Now Prefers The Shadows

Jul 19, 2018
Originally published on July 20, 2018 9:39 am

As a member of Congress, Dan Coats liked to get his name in the paper. Now that he's the country's top intelligence official, Coats said he prefers to stay out of the headlines.

But the director of national intelligence, who oversees the United States' sprawling spy agencies, has been front and center in the past week as he has pushed back against President Trump over Russia's interference in American elections.

Coats has made clear that American intelligence agencies stand by their assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, even as Trump has sent conflicting signals, most significantly when he appeared to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin's denials over the assessments of U.S. spy agencies.

Coats took the extraordinary step of publicly contradicting Trump shortly after the president's meeting with Putin in Helsinki, saying the American intelligence community stands by its assessment.

"My thoughts were that I needed to correct the record for that," Coats said Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

"I just felt at this point in time that what we had assessed and reassessed and reassessed and carefully gone over still stands," he said, "and that it was important to take that stand on behalf of the intelligence community and on behalf of the American people."

Coats said that since the president has come out and endorsed the U.S. assessment, and he now thinks it's time to move on.

Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana who was appointed the nation's top spy last year, has emerged as one of the sharpest voices in the administration on Russia.

He said he still doesn't know what Trump discussed with Putin during the leaders' one-on-one meeting in Helsinki. And Coats was blindsided by the White House announcement Thursday that Putin had been invited to Washington this fall.

Coats looked briefly stunned on stage when NBC's Andrea Mitchell asked him about the invitation.

"Say that again," he said. "OK. That's going to be special."

Audience members laughed.

He later confirmed that he did not know about the invitation beforehand.

Coats also said he did not know beforehand that Trump planned to host Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russia's then-ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in the Oval office in May of 2017.

Trump's invitation for Russia's president this autumn raises the prospect that Putin could arrive in Washington during midterm elections that Coats and FBI Director Christopher Wray both have said the Russians are trying to disrupt, through disinformation and other ongoing active measures.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.