As the fallout from his Russia summit spills into the weekend and spreads among his staff, President Donald Trump is retreating to the site of his most consequential personnel decision, the dismissal of FBI Director James Comey last spring.
Trump’s return to his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey, where he often surrounds himself with close friends and family, follows a calamitous week, beginning with the news conference in Finland with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and ending with news that the president’s longtime personal attorney made a recording of Trump talking about payments related to a former Playboy model.
Trump loyalists have come to see the White House staff’s response as insufficiently supportive, as officials inside struggle to explain the president’s seesaw statements about Putin and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The hair-trigger situation culminated in an on-brand yet off-message remark by his director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, stirring further angst among some in the president’s inner circle.
Trump, according to two outside allies, has grown exasperated with Coats, whom he blindsided Thursday when White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced on Twitter that the administration was working to bring Putin to Washington this fall. The news landed while Coats was in the middle of a live interview with NBC in Aspen, Colorado.
Republicans in Congress have managed to block measures backing the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. But the Trump allies told POLITICO that directly confronting, let alone firing, Coats — who before the latest blow-up over Russia was believed to be weighing his own retirement date — could create an uncontainable firestorm on Capitol Hill.
One former Trump senior official described the situation to POLITICO in one word: “meltdown.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment, including whom the president will meet with this weekend.
On Friday, Coats called and spoke with Vice President Mike Pence, according to a person familiar with the conversation. In the past he has said he has a good relationship with Trump, and in late 2016, when he was still a U.S. senator representing Indiana, he praised the president-elect’s negotiating skills.
Coats, who strongly denied plans to retire when asked by POLITICO in February, was seen by intelligence-watchers as bringing a calming stability amid friction between Trump and the national security establishment.
Still, some who have kept in contact with his office had been saying for months that it made sense that Coats, who came out of retirement last year when Trump selected him, wouldn’t want to stay in the intelligence role indefinitely.
For one thing, Coats turned 75 in May — and he previously indicated that he didn’t want to work long past that age, according to several of these people.
“He was not particularly eager to take the job to begin with and was sort of talked into it on the theory of when the president asks, you should serve,” one former high-ranking intelligence official, who is in regular contact with current intelligence leaders, said early this year. Like others who spoke to POLITICO, the former official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations.
As the director of national intelligence, Coats is in charge of coordinating the work of 17 military and civilian intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency and FBI — a task he has carried out with a notably low public profile. His time in that office coincided with the rise of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director, who served a much more vocal role for the Trump administration on issues such as Iran and North Korea. Both men, in their roles, provided Trump with his daily intelligence briefing, Pompeo explained earlier this year during an event at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
A second former senior intelligence official said of the post of director of national intelligence: “The role typically has been low-key. But Director Coats has been particularly absent from public view.”
In his statement to POLITICO in February, Coats said that in the coming months, he would be “excited to lead the upcoming announcement and implementation of the ODNI transformation and IC future-focused initiatives my team has been working on for the past year, which will help ensure the Intelligence Community is best positioned to address the current and future threats facing our nation.”
A Coats retirement or dismissal would set the stage for a potentially contentious fight over who should replace him, particularly with Trump’s outreach to Putin reaching new levels of engagement and the upcoming midterm elections.
Among the agencies Coats works with, the FBI in particular has come under heavy criticism from the White House and congressional Republicans who accuse it of being biased in its investigation of whether Trump team colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. The bureau is also looking at whether Trump and his aides may have obstructed justice in the probe.
Trump’s struggle with the intelligence community was already well underway when he announced Coats’ selection in early January 2017.
This was a rocky period when the incoming president was repeatedly casting doubt on intelligence agencies’ conclusion that top Moscow officials had orchestrated a sweeping digital influence campaign eventually aimed at putting the billionaire in the Oval Office. Similar to his more recent attacks on the FBI, Trump argued then that intelligence agencies were pushing a false narrative aimed at undermining his administration.
Soon after the election, The Intercept reported that Trump and his top advisers had worked on a plan to scale back the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — and had even discussed scraping the director post entirely. For both Republicans and Democrats rattled by the reports, Coats was a reassuring presence.
“He seems like a reasonable person, gets along with people, isn’t going to rock the boat, willing to do it,” the former senior official told POLITICO. “Put that all together, I could see how they arrived at him.”
Indeed, Coats’ confirmation hearing reflected a sense that the former lawmaker — who had also served as an ambassador to Germany during the George W. Bush administration — was taking the job out of a sense of duty.
“You’ve agreed to do a job that many have called thankless — why?” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Chairman, asked Coats.
“I believe, if asked by your leader of your country to serve your country again, the answer needed to be yes,” he responded.
But Coats’ role was soon complicated by the rise of Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas who had made a name for himself on the House Intelligence Committee and the House Select Committee on Benghazi. Observers speculated that Pompeo’s rise as Trump’s go-to person on intelligence issues might have made the job less desirable for Coats.
Trump and much of his national security team view the CIA, not ODNI, as the embodiment of the American intelligence apparatus, according to current and former intelligence-focused individuals both on and off Capitol Hill. Well before Pompeo was elevated to secretary of state, Trump’s team turned to him to deliver public remarks on the Iran nuclear deal, North Korea and WikiLeaks — which he labeled a “non-state hostile intelligence service” — and to forcefully push back on criticism of Pompeo’s recent meetings with two Russian spy chiefs.
Last November, at Trump’s request, Pompeo met with William Binney, a former National Security Agency official turned surveillance critic who has disputed Russian involvement in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee leading up to the 2016 election. Many observers thought the meeting lent credence to a notion that Pompeo’s own agency has discredited.
Trump has also continued to toy with overhauling the U.S. intelligence apparatus, according to news reports. Foreign Policy reported last month that the president might choose Stephen Feinberg, a billionaire private equity executive, to helm a key intelligence advisory board.
During this period, Coats has mostly stayed out of the spotlight.
If Coats were to step down, Trump might struggle to get a successor confirmed, given the looming 2018 midterms and the Russia controversy. Observers have also long speculated that career intelligence professionals might not want the job, given the contentious relationship between Trump and the broader intelligence community.
Matthew Nussbaum contributed to this report.