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GUEST COMMENTARY: Coats, others found clarity short-lived in Trump circle

GUEST COMMENTARY: Coats, others found clarity short-lived in Trump circle

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INDIANAPOLIS — Gathering for dinner in 2015 at the governor’s retreat, Brown County State Park’s Aynes House, Gov. Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. Dan Coats came to some career conclusions. Pence decided he would not seek the presidency in 2016 and Coats opted against reelection.

“We talked about the future and where God might lead each of us,” Coats explained to author Bob Woodward in the book “Rage” released earlier this month. “We prayed that God would be clear and I think I raised the question that we should pray for clarity.”

Donald Trump’s stunning 2016 upset of Hillary Clinton not only changed the course of history, it altered the life stories of Pence and Coats. Pence proposed that Coats speak to the president-elect, ostensibly to describe how the Senate works. A month after that meeting, Pence called Coats: “The president would like you to be director of national intelligence” overseeing the sprawling 17 spy agencies.

The senator was reluctant. His wife, Marsha Coats, then an Indiana Republican national committeewoman, urged him to accept. Coats concluded that Pence was trying to seed the Trump Cabinet with allies, people who shared his religious values.

The previous summer at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Coats told me how he had met with Trump, and he hand-delivered a message from his wife. Later, when Dan and Marsha Coats met with the billionaire in Fort Wayne, Trump sought her out. “He said, ‘Marsha, I will not let you down.’” Marsha Coats came to this conclusion: “God is so big he can even humble Donald Trump.” 

Once on the job, Coats felt “utterly overwhelmed.” He would give Trump the President’s Daily Briefing three times a week. He never knew which Trump he would find. Some days Trump would be in a fine mood. Other days he would lash out abusively. Coats was shocked: “Trump was on a different page than just about anything I believed in.”

'A lie is not a lie'

Eventually, Coats struck up a friendship with Defense Secretary James Mattis. “The president has no moral compass,” Mattis told Coats. “True,” Coats responded. “To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”

As Coats and Mattis grew closer, his friendship with Pence grew more distant. Coats told Woodward, “Once he became vice president he built that kind of cocoon around him that basically said ‘this is the role of a vice president.’ In Coats’ eyes, Pence had become passive, subservient and obedient.”

Marsha Coats told others, “Mike Pence no doubt believes God put him where he is and his job is to be a good VP, loyal and supportive — even though he doesn’t agree with so much of it.”

On July 16, 2018, President Trump met with Russian President Putin alone for two hours in Helsinki. Coats never received a read-out. Five months before, Coats warned the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia was assaulting the U.S. electoral process. In Helsinki, Trump threw United States intelligence services under the bus. “They said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said as Putin stood by, smiling. “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia.”

Coats issued a rebuke: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”

Woodward: “As DNI, Coats had access to the most sensitive intelligence — intercepts, and the best deep-cover human CIA sources in Russia. He suspected the worst but found nothing that would show Trump was indeed in Putin’s pocket. But Coats’ doubts continued, never dissipating.”

Mattis felt Kurds betrayal

On Dec. 6, 2018, Mattis met in Ottawa with 13 defense ministers with troops in Syria. “They need to stay in the fight; every country needs to stay,” Mattis said. He was jubilant the coalition was staying intact. ISIS was defeated militarily, but the fear was it could reconstitute. On Dec. 19, Mattis saw a Trump tweet pop up: “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home.” Mattis was shocked at this betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies. He quit.

As the sole “adult” left in the room, Coats pondered his exit after a series of White House leaks suggested he was on thin ice. Pence did not want to hear talk of Coats resigning. “Look, we need to support the president,” Pence told Coats. “Let’s look at the positive side of things that he’s done. More attention on that. You can’t go.” 

Feeling Trump’s contempt, Coats felt depleted. On Memorial Day weekend 2019, Woodward reported, Coats called Mattis. “I’m really having a hard time here,” Coats said.  

Mattis responded: “Maybe at some point we’re going to have to stand up and speak out. There may be a time when we have to take collective action. He’s unfit. We can’t let the country keep going on this course.”

On July 28, 2019 — three days after Trump’s ill-fated phone call with Ukraine President Zelensky that triggered his impeachment — Dan and Marsha Coats were golfing at the Trump National Club, and came across the president. Mrs. Coats, a trained psychologist, had a feeling something was up. The look on Trump’s face was one of “guilt and dismay,” Woodward reported.

When they arrived at the fourth hole, they learned Dan Coats had been fired (via Twitter).

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol. The opinions are the writer's.

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