The last time I was with Dan Coats, we had breakfast at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. He looked and sounded like a man ready to retire and enjoy his grandkids. He had been a public servant since 1980, his career coursing through the U.S. House, Senate and as ambassador to Germany, taking that post just hours before the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Coats was a late supporter of Donald Trump. He and his wife, former Republican National Committeewoman Marsha Coats, had concerns about candidate Trump. Marsha wrote Trump a letter, hand-delivered by her husband, and at a subsequent appearance in Fort Wayne, Trump "sought her out,” the senator said. “He said, ‘Marsha, I will not let you down.'” This Donald Trump listened and asked questions.
But Coats understood the political attraction of Trump, in awe that he could draw 20,000 people to an arena. As for Trump's style, Coats told him, “If you change your speech, you might draw 250 people. I think you really need to be Donald Trump, but what I see now is a Donald Trump who listens and asks questions.”
Coats didn't retire at the end of 2016. By appeal from Vice President-elect Mike Pence, Coats became director of National Intelligence. He is guardian of the American empire, boss to spies and spooks, assessor of the plethora of threats we face and our ardent defender.
He has had a tormented relationship with President Trump, most conspicuously coming to a head in Helsinki last July, when Trump met with Russian President Putin alone for two hours. Asked if he believed U.S. intelligence services or Putin over whether the Kremlin assaulted the 2016 U.S. election. Trump responded, “My people came to me, Dan Coats and others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be. I have great confidence in my intelligence people. But I will tell you President Putin was extremely strong in his denial.”
Appearing before a congressional hearing Tuesday with FBI Director Christopher Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel to assess threats facing the United States, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden asked Coats if knew what Trump and Putin talked about. “This is a sensitive issue and an issue we ought to talk about this afternoon and discuss in a closed session,” Coats responded.
When Coats testified about the threats facing America, he, Wray and Haspel contradicted Trump on an array of fronts. The president has said that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat, ISIS has been defeated, and Iran is defying its nuclear agreement.
What were Coats' assessments?
"We assess that foreign actors will view the 2020 US elections as an opportunity to advance their interests,” Coats said of Russia. “We expect Russia will continue to wage its information war against democracies and to use social media to attempt to divide our societies. The Kremlin has aligned Russia with repressive regimes in Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela, and Moscow’s relationship with Beijing is closer than it has been in many decades."
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Has ISIS been defeated? "Remaining pockets of ISIS and opposition fighters will continue to stoke violence," Coats said. "The conflicts in Iraq and Syria have generated a large pool of skilled and battle-hardened fighters who remain dispersed throughout the region."
Is North Korea no longer a nuclear threat? "We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival," Coats said.
Is Iran in violation of the denuclearization accords? Coats explained, "We do not believe Iran is currently undertaking the key activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.”
For those of you who wonder what the big deal is with the weird and troubling Trump/Putin relationship, hours after Coats testified, the Financial Times reported the two met alone (with just a Russian translator) at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires with video emerging of the two hand signaling each other at dinner.
Coats offered this kicker: "We assess North Korea, Russia, Syria and ISIS have all used chemical weapons over the past two years, which threatens international norms and may portend future use."
And about that “emergency” of the “caravan” in Mexico, Coats did not describe a dire threat as Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have. “High crime rates and weak job markets will continue to spur U.S.-bound migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras,” is how Coats put it.
Following his testimony, Trump tweeted, "The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong! Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!"
My final thought? Coats is anything but passive and naive. He is learned, connected and has a firm grip on the dangerous world that surrounds us and, potentially, within us. I’ll repeat what I said in a column last July: We should all be thankful Coats is where he's at and pray that he stays there for the next two years.