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Trump grows frustrated with Coats, leading some to fear he might be fired

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/20/2019 Shane Harris, Josh Dawsey, Ellen Nakashima
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President Trump has grown increasingly disenchanted with Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, who has served as the nation’s top intelligence official for nearly two years, leading some administration officials to worry he will soon be dismissed, according to people familiar with the matter.

The president has never seen Coats as a close or trusted adviser, the people said, but he has become more frustrated with him in recent weeks over public statements that Trump sees as undercutting his policy goals, particularly with respect to reaching a disarmament agreement with North Korea.

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The people familiar with the matter, who like others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, did not believe that Coats would be fired immediately but said that Trump is considering removing him. They also noted that Trump sometimes grows angry with officials but stops short of dismissing them. 

Trump is still “enraged” about Coats’s congressional testimony on national security threats last month, believing that the director undercut the president’s authority when he shared intelligence assessments about Iran, North Korea and the Islamic State that are at odds with many of Trump’s public statements, said one adviser who spoke with the president over the weekend.

Trump had seemed to put the episode behind him and claimed shortly after the hearing that Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel told him they’d been “misquoted” in their comments at the televised hearing.

But privately, the president has continued to fume, and this weekend he told the adviser that Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana, is “not loyal” and “he’s not on the team.”

A White House official separately said that Trump has recently complained about Coats’s public statements, which he believed had undermined him. Another White House official said the president’s frustration with Coats was real but didn’t believe he would be fired anytime soon.

At the intelligence director’s headquarters in Northern Virginia, there was no sense that Coats’s termination was imminent, said a former senior intelligence official who spoke with people there on Tuesday morning.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 18 : Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats listens to President Donald J. Trump during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Wednesday, July 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images) © Getty WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 18 : Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats listens to President Donald J. Trump during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Wednesday, July 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“This has been a tense relationship for a long time,” the former official said. “Most people don’t think it’s happening tomorrow. But, yes, they think it’s just a matter of time.”

Trump has been asking confidantes for suggestions on who could replace Coats, according to the adviser.

In venting his anger at Coats, the president was following a familiar pattern that precedes his dismissal of Cabinet officials. Trump often grouses about disloyalty with the understanding that his interlocutors will speak to reporters, thereby putting the offending official on notice that their days are numbered.

A spokesman for Coats declined to comment.

Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were upset by the prospect of Coats’s firing.

“Dan Coats is a model public servant,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a panel member who was at last month’s threats hearing. “When a president — any president — denigrates or ignores factual information presented by the intelligence community . . . he or she is sending a message to the intelligence community: ‘Don’t tell me things I don’t want to hear.’”

Early in the Trump administration, Coats forged a tight bond with then-CIA director Mike Pompeo, who has become one of the most trusted foreign policy advisers as secretary of state. Pompeo is now the administration’s point man on countering Iran, a major administration goal, and nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea.

When Coats attends Trump’s daily intelligence briefings, he has sometimes been unable to secure the president’s attention and to keep him from veering off on tangents, the former official said.

As Pompeo’s star rose, the president has also grown to admire Haspel, who became CIA director last May, according to U.S. officials.

That has left Coats as something of an odd man out. He is not a particularly hands-on manager and has delegated the day-to-day running of the director’s office to his principal deputy, Sue Gordon, a career intelligence officer with nearly 30 years of experience, current and former officials said.

“He is not uninvolved, but he is not a deep-dive manager,” said a former senior intelligence official who has known Coats for years and remains in touch with current leaders.

The post of intelligence director is seen as one of the most thankless in the intelligence community. But it has previously been occupied by people with long careers running spy agencies or military commands.

Coats had served on the Senate Intelligence Committee and was ambassador to Germany in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which brought German and U.S. intelligence agencies into a closer working relationship.

But he has been seen more as a caretaker in the position, not as someone who planned to enact a bold agenda.

“It is the case that a lot of people felt that Coats was going to do this for a while and then go do what he was about to do when he took on the job, which is retire and spend time with his grandkids,” the former official who spoke to people at Coats’s office said.

But if he meant to keep his head down, Coats also found himself squaring off publicly with the president, in dramatic and perhaps unintentional ways.

Last July, Coats was being interviewed onstage at the annual Aspen Security Forum when the White House announced via tweet that Russian President Vladi­mir Putin had been invited to Washington.

Coats was clearly taken by surprise and made little effort to hide his displeasure.

“Okaaaay,” Coats said. “That’s going to be special.” The audience erupted in laughter.

In the same interview, with NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell, Coats also said no one had asked him if it was a good idea for Trump to meet privately with Putin at a summit meeting in Helsinki. Trump didn’t allow any Cabinet officials or aides to attend the meeting, and several officials have said they couldn’t get a reliable account of the conversation between the two leaders, which was attended only by two interpreters, The Washington Post has reported.

Coats said that he hadn’t been told what happened in the meeting. If asked, he said, he’d have advised the president against speaking one-on-one with Putin and that U.S. security officials were concerned there were no notes taken.

Asked whether it was possible Putin had secretly recorded the more-than-two-hour meeting, Coats answered, “That risk is always there.”

Trump was livid, and believed that Coats was trying to embarrass him in a room filled with high-ranking current and former national security officials, many of them outspoken critics of the president, a senior U.S. official said at the time.

Two days later, Coats publicly apologized for what he called an “admittedly awkward response” to the news of the Putin invitation.

shane.harris@washpost.com

josh.dawsey@washpost.com

ellen.nakashima@washpost.com

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