The post-Helsinki tension between President Donald Trump and his Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats appeared to have cooled after the President reaffirmed his support for the intelligence community and its assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Then came Aspen.
“Say that again?” Coats said, incredulously, as he was informed during a live onstage interview that Trump was inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington for a second round of talks. “Okay…that’s gonna be special.”
Coats’ reaction left intelligence officials furious that he had not been informed about the invitation and that the White House tweeted the news while Coats was onstage during the nationally televised security conference in Aspen, Colorado. At the White House, meanwhile, officials fumed about Coats’ disapproving reaction to the invitation and his freewheeling comments that offered thinly-veiled criticism of the President.
Officials on both sides of the divide are now openly speculating about Coats’ future. The intelligence chief isn’t scheduled to return to Washington until Monday.
Coats spoke with Vice President Mike Pence on Friday, according to a person familiar with the call. The two are close and both represented Indiana in Congress.
Coats’ telling reaction to Trump’s invitation to Putin was just one of several remarkable moments Coats served up during his interview Thursday. He also rebuked Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Putin, saying he would have advised against it, and said he thought it was a bad idea for Trump to invite senior Russian officials into the Oval Office last year – both stunning statements for a senior member of a President’s Cabinet to make publicly.
Earlier in the week, it was Coats too who issued a stern statement backing up the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election after Trump challenged that assessment alongside Putin.
It wasn’t clear whether the President was indeed infuriated by Coats’ remarkable appearance, but speculation abounded in Washington that Coats might be in the President’s crosshairs.
“We’re hearing through channels that the White House, they’re mad,” a US intelligence official said.
“I think what’s on everybody’s mind is that we’re gonna experience another Comey moment,” the official added, referring to the unceremonious firing of former FBI director James Comey.
Coats, for his part, said Thursday that while he has in the past considered resigning, he intends to remain in his position as long as he has “the ability to seek the truth and speak the truth.”
Firing would spur criticism from lawmakers
But pushing Coats out could provoke another round of criticism against the President from Republican lawmakers who strongly back Coats and have already rebuked Trump repeatedly this week over his handling of his Putin summit.
“If Coats is fired or pushed out, there will be a rebellion by his former colleagues on the Senate Intel Committee, many of whom are really reassured to know Dan Coats is there,” a Senate aide told CNN. “If he resigns in protest or otherwise leaves on his own terms, that’s one thing. But if he’s fired for simply telling the truth about a conclusion that was unanimously confirmed by the committee, there’s not going to be a whole lot of interest in providing political cover for the White House.”
An intelligence official said Coats is generally liked and respected by the President because of his laid-back attitude in the briefings.
Trump publicly praised Coats this week in the wake of the fallout from the Helsinki summit, calling Coats “excellent.” After saying he did not believe Russia was still a threat, he later said in an interview with CBS on Wednesday that he accepted Coats’ assessment that the Russian threat to US elections is ongoing.
“I go along with him. He’s a very, he’s a great guy. He’s a great patriot. He loves his country. And he’s only going to say what he truly believes,” Trump said.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Jeremy Herb and Ryan Nobles contributed to this report.