It was a jaw-dropping moment that embodied the utterly unfathomable, logic-defying and increasingly troubling twilight zone into which Washington has plunged since the Helsinki summit.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was onstage at a security forum in Aspen, Colorado, when he was told by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that the White House had announced on Twitter that President Donald Trump had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit in the fall.
“Say that again,” Coats said, doing a double take and laughing in disbelief at the absurdity of the latest episode in the Russia saga. Once he had collected himself, he added: “Okaaaay. … That’s going to be special.”
It was a comic twist that exemplified the way Trump has tipped American foreign policy and presidential convention on its head since his controversial summit with Putin on Monday, in which he was deeply deferential to the Russian leader and lashed out at his own country.
The barely believable events of recent days are provoking rising debate in Washington and in the media over whether Russia does indeed have some incriminating intelligence it is holding over the President’s head that is influencing his behavior toward Putin. There has so far been no publicly available evidence to support that case.
But Steve Hall, a former CIA station chief in Moscow, issued a chilling warning on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” on Thursday – which if it is borne out would have unfathomable political consequences.
“Before the Helsinki summit, I was not prepared to go to the darkest corner in the room and say there is kompromat – there is compromising information – on Donald Trump,” Hall said.
“After … I saw Donald Trump treat (Putin) in a fashion that is just inexplicable, the only conclusion that I can come to is … I think there is information and data out there that implies there is indeed compromising information that Vladimir Putin has on Donald Trump. Why else would he treat him that way?”
In Aspen, Coats’ good humor masked the troubling implications of the fact that the nation’s top intelligence chief found out from a reporter, on live television, that the Russian President had been invited to visit Washington, amid the uproar over what happened in Helsinki.
First of all, it was humiliating for Coats, just days after Trump preferred Putin’s “very strong and powerful” denials of election interference over the assessment of Russia’s culpability that had been delivered to him by the DNI before he went to Finland.
At best, it was an example of rank incompetence by the White House – since the failure to give Coats prior notice of the announcement was deeply embarrassing to a senior intelligence official ostensibly speaking on behalf of the government.
But such is Trump’s contempt for US intelligence agencies and their conclusions on Russian election interference that it could not be ruled out Coats was deliberately hung out to dry, after he reiterated warnings that Russia is still interfering in US democracy.
Trump doubles down with Putin invitation
Coats’ humiliation, however, was not the most troubling development on another stunning day of reverberations from the Helsinki summit, on which Trump moved on from haphazard cleanup efforts to a defiant counterattack that was embodied by the Putin invitation.
Coats also revealed that he still did not know what had gone on in the nearly two-hour-long meeting in Finland, when the two Presidents met alone with only interpreters present. The disclosure indicates that the contents of Trump’s meeting are still a mystery at top levels of his own government – which in turn suggests a lack of a normal policy process and sheds new suspicion on the mysterious hold the Russian leader exerts over the US President.
In effect, the appearance by Coats was a direct challenge to Trump – the kind of show of independence and defiance that typically does not sit well with the President.
At the end of Coats’ appearance in Aspen there were new questions about how long he could survive in his job – or even if he was actively daring the President to fire him.
The prospect that Putin could visit Washington is staggering in itself – but it is consistent with Trump’s practice of doubling down in a fight and refusing to cede ground to his critics, in this case those who believe that Helsinki was a debacle.
A Putin visit will be controversial because it will bring a US adversary accused of masterminding a scheme to help put Trump into power to the United States at about the same time as midterm elections that US spy agencies say are already falling victim to Moscow’s meddling.
US national security analyst and military historian Max Boot agreed with the premise that the failure to notify Coats of the invitation smacked of White House incompetence but also suggested that “something more sinister and nefarious” was going on.
“Donald Trump is now being investigated by the FBI for colluding with Vladimir Putin to affect the 2016 US election, and now, he is effectively colluding with Putin right now, meeting privately with Putin,” Boot said on CNN’s “Erin Burnett Out Front.”
Boot bemoaned the probability that senior officials don’t know what Trump agreed to in the private head-to-head in Helsinki – even as Russia begins to dribble out details.
“The top people in the US government who ought to know, including Director Coats, they don’t know.” he said. “Putin knows but Director Coats doesn’t know – that is wrong, especially given the highly suspect relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.”
The Coats drama overshadowed another head-spinning development following Helsinki, as the White House backtracked on its previous statement that it was considering an offer by Putin that Trump called “incredible” – to send US officials to Moscow for questioning.
Putin suggested at the summit that in return for FBI agents traveling to Moscow to interview suspects accused of election interference, Washington should make the Obama-era ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, who Putin regards as an enemy, available to Russian investigators.
The White House reversed course only hours before the Senate, in a rare bipartisan show of resistance, voted 98-0 to pass a resolution condemning the idea.
Even when announcing the climbdown, the White House showed unusual deference to Putin.
Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the proposal was made “in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it.”
Why Trump is lashing out
The President himself on Thursday leaped out of his defensive crouch, accusing his critics of preferring war with Russia to his diplomatic outreach.
“The summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media. I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed,” Trump tweeted.
There is every sign that the President thinks a Putin visit could help him – given that a new CBS News poll Thursday found 68% of Republicans approve of the way he handled the summit.
Every time Trump sets himself up against his media critics on a major national issue, it has the effect of cementing his bond with grassroots voters he needs to show up in November. Many of those voters rally to his side when they perceive he is being attacked by the media – a state of mind that the President’s tweet about the “real enemy of the people” is designed to foment.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden used an intelligence community analogy to suggest that Trump’s move was intended to demonstrate his belief that the meeting in Finland went well and that he is driving the relationship:
“The cover story for the President (is) that he was strong, that he was effective, that it was a successful meeting. He may well be the only one in the national capital area who is saying that, but that is his story and he is sticking to it.”
Former GOP Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, who is now a CNN national security commentator, warned that Trump was playing a dangerous game.
“If you hug Vladimir Putin, you are going to get a knife in the back,” he told Anderson Cooper.