President Donald Trump has discussed with advisers over the past few days the possibility of replacing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, sources familiar with the discussion said.
A senior White House official confirmed there is some discussion about Coats leaving his position, as he has been on the job for more than two years and is eyeing retirement again. However, it remains unclear when or if Trump will make a move.
Trump has expressed frustration in the past with Coats and has periodically considered replacing him, as CNN has reported. His conversations about possibly removing Coats appears to have been revived in recent days, but Trump has long disapproved of some of Coats’ conduct.
Another senior White House official said Trump has never really warmed up to his intelligence director, and this official noted discussions between the President and his aides about removing Coats happened well after he contradicted Trump during a hearing on Capitol Hill earlier this year – an episode that drew the President’s ire.
Coats’ office referred CNN to a March statement, in which Coats said, “I am focused on doing my job, and it is frustrating to repeatedly be asked to respond to anonymous sources and unsubstantiated, often false rumors that undercut the critical work of the Intelligence Community and its relationship with the President. I am proud to lead an IC singularly focused on the vital mission of providing timely and unbiased intelligence to President Trump, Vice President Pence and the national security team in support of our nation’s security.”
Axios first reported the President’s renewed focus on Coats.
Fred Fleitz, former chief of staff to national security adviser John Bolton, is one name being floated for the post. He has had discussions with the White House about possibly replacing Coats, two sources told CNN.
But there could be several others, as Trump is no stranger to creating a vacancy with no clear permanent replacement waiting in the wings.
A source familiar with Bolton’s thinking told CNN that he is pushing for Fleitz to get the job, but Trump’s relationship with Bolton has been tested due to the national security adviser’s push for more aggressive moves on Iran and it is unclear if Bolton has the clout to get one of his top allies into such a prestigious post.
Michael S. Smith II, a terrorism analyst and teaching fellow in the Global Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University who has advised Republican members of Congress on national security issues for nearly a decade, told CNN that the possibility of Trump replacing Coats with a Bolton ally like Fleitz is concerning.
“I think most people working in government agencies comprising the US intelligence community assume CIA director Gina Haspel will be the voice of reason that smashes the brakes on this potential train wreck. Unfortunately, I think they may be overestimating her influence capacity,” he said.
Not the first time Trump has considered replacing Coats
Trump and Coats never forged a particularly close relationship and the President has time and again voiced frustrations about Coats, telling advisers that he considered Coats in line with other top officials who have sought to restrain him like former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former White House chief of staff John Kelly.
In February, CNN reported that White House officials had begun to have preliminary discussions about replacing Coats amid concerns Trump might soon dismiss him. Trump publicly denied that he was considering the move at the time.
Those conversations began after Trump vented to friends and advisers about the director of national intelligence, renewing his gripes about Coats’ testimony before Congress in January. In that testimony, Coats publicly contradicted Trump’s optimistic forecast about the chances North Korea will agree to give up its nuclear weapons.
“We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities,” Coats said during that hearing. “It is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival. Our assessment is bolstered by our observations of some activity that is inconsistent with full denuclearization.”
Coats was in lock-step with the US intelligence community’s assessments – which Trump himself has seen – but the President fumed in the subsequent days about the press coverage of Coats and his fellow intelligence officials’ comments.
When disagreements between Trump and Coats previously spilled into public view, Trump has quickly papered over the discord and moved on, but it remains unclear whether the that will happen again this time.
A complicated relationship
Sources familiar with Coats’ thinking have told CNN in recent months that it was unlikely he would resign due to disagreements over policy with the White House or to make a public statement – despite some calls for him to do so when Trump appeared to contradict the intelligence community on Russian interference while standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last year.
While Coats is not comfortable with Trump’s attacks directed at military and intelligence officials, both current and former, and is keenly aware when Trump’s decisions seem to directly contradict the briefings provided by intelligence officials, the fact that he has not resigned to this point is a reflection of his sense of patriotism, several sources said.
“When Dan Coats does decide to step down, I would be reluctant to attribute his departure to any difference of views with the White House given his ability to maintain his position during a challenging few years,” a former senior intelligence official who worked closely with Coats told CNN.
Coats has also weathered an up and down personal relationship with the President as the two men never really have become close, sources said. When media reports noted that Trump privately refers to Coats as “Mr. Rogers,” one source close to Coats laughed and said, “He’s like Mr. Rogers with a spine of steel.”
Still, that’s not to say Coats would not step down on his own terms or if explicitly asked to do so by the President, multiple sources said.
“Dan Coats has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to stay above the political fray and stick to the mission of the DNI. He is driven by principle, mission, and a commitment to the country. Although I am sure his family will be delighted if they can spend more time with him, his departure means that the administration is losing someone known for his decency, gravitas, and a willingness to work in a bipartisan manner,” the former senior intelligence official said.
But until that time, multiple sources said Coats will continue to do his job as he has done since he was confirmed.
CNN’s Alex Marquardt contributed reporting