Perhaps on Tuesday, Aug. 20, we’ll find private citizen Dan Coats at Wrigley Field, taking in the Cubs-Giants game. Or, perhaps, he’ll wait for that day game on Aug. 23 against the Washington Nationals.
We can hope that this Cubs fan, Hoosier patriot, who never lost an election, who was willing to walk away from the money-grubbing political swamp at least twice, will treat himself to a beer, a brat and sing “Take me out to the ballgame” soon.
Dan Coats deserves it.
But the trade-off for the rest of us is that of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” or the warning from David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” remake: “Be afraid, be very afraid.”
When Dan Coats leaves as director of national intelligence on Aug. 15, the last of the “grown-ups” from Donald Trump’s White House will be gone. Jim Mattis, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster had been the “guard rails” for the unpredictable Trump, who presides over an administration filled by “acting” secretaries and directors. These actors now toil with a side-glance for every presidential whim. Screw up and, well, “You’re fired.”
It remains to be seen who will succeed Coats. At the forefront was U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas, a former small town mayor and district attorney who claims to have prosecuted terrorism cases, though there is no evidence that he did. However, Trump announced via Twitter Friday that Ratcliffe is no longer in the running.
When the director of national intelligence, or DNI, position was created by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, it was designed to be an intel clearing house, coordinating 16 federal agencies so that someone might flag the notion that Saudi pilot trainees in Florida and Minnesota weren’t really interested in landing 737s.
When DNI was staffed beginning in 2005, there was John Negroponte who had served as ambassador to failed states in perceived American crises. He was followed by Navy intelligence officers (Vice Adm. Mike McConnell), Navy commanders (Dennis Blair) and leaders from the Defense Intelligence Agency (Lt. Gen. James Clapper).
Coats’ pedigree came in the hours after the 9/11 attack. He had just been sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Germany. In that capacity, Coats played a vital role in the invoking of NATO’s Article V, which brought the alliance to America’s side as it began assaulting al-Qaeda warrens in Afghanistan.
Coats was planning to ease into retirement at the end of his U.S. Senate term from Indiana when Trump pulled off one of the most unexpected upsets in presidential history in November 2016. At the behest of Vice President-elect Mike Pence, Coats was coaxed into a new era of service.
As Trump freelanced and disparaged U.S. intelligence agencies, Coats was often caught offguard. When Trump met with Putin in Helsinki in July 2018, the two met alone and Trump openly doubted assessments that the Russians assaulted our election.
Trump had said, “My people came to me — Dan Coats came to me, 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.”
Coats responded with a terse statement: “The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers. We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2020 election.”
It has been reported that Coats did not receive a read-out of the private Trump/Putin meetings, though there is speculation that U.S. intelligence agencies gleaned some of what they discussed through clandestine Russian sources.
Last January, Trump openly refuted intelligence claims by Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel on the viability of ISIS, Iran’s nuclear capabilities and North Korea obtaining nuclear weapons. “They said they were totally misquoted and totally taken out of context,” Trump said. “They said it was fake news.”
What were Coats’ assessments? “We assess that foreign actors will view the 2020 U.S. elections as an opportunity to advance their interests,” Coats said of Russia in a congressional hearing.
At a meeting hours later in the Oval Office, Trump was seen in a stare down with Coats over the Resolute Desk. “I’ve disagreed with certain things that they’ve said. I think I’m right, but time will prove that,” Trump responded after he was asked about his level of confidence in Haspel and Coats.
Why do I invoke Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Because Coats told President Trump things he didn’t want to hear or know. With the Russians taking aim at the 2020 election, an assault putting the results in a two or three states in confusion, and you have a discredited election.
The cornerstone of the fragile American democracy has been fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power.
Dan Coats performed this most patriot of tasks over the past three years. He deserves a peaceful retirement. I simply hope America can withstand the threats to our democracy over the next 17 months with the guardrails gone.