It was all fairly innocuous except for one problem: Coats was in the completely wrong hearing complimenting the wrong witness.
After he’d finished a lengthy opening to his question, a staffer slipped Coats a piece of paper. Coats read it to himself, looked up, and said, “I just got a note saying I’m at the wrong hearing.”
“Well, that would explain why I didn’t know anything about this letter,” said David Cohen, undersecretary of treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence.
Coats, who served in the Senate from 1989 to 1999, was U.S. ambassador to Germany and then returned to the Senate in 2011. He said that had never happened to him before. He saw familiar faces, he said, and thought he was in the right place. (Coats is on the Appropriations committee, but showed up at the wrong subcommittee.)
“I’ll go try to find out where I’m supposed to be,” Coats said.
Coats did find his place, in a hearing room down the hall in Dirksen scheduled an hour later, where Principal Deputy Defense Undersecretary Mike McCord knew all about the letter.
UPDATE: Good humored Coats acknowledged his mix-up on Twitter, musing it may be a Russian conspiracy, which is a possibility considering Vladimir Putin singled him out for a sanction last month.
Full transcript of the Coats blunder:
SENATOR DAN COATS: OK, thank you, Mr. Chairman. I just want to follow up on a parochial question, if you don’t mind, and that is the Indiana delegation sent to the Pentagon, Undersecretary Hale, a letter dated March 24th, asking some questions about the AMFO initiative. That’s the Army financial management optimization program. Number one, I want to commend you because, unprecedented in my career, we received a letter back on March 26th, of the same year. So I’m very impressed with that. A word of thanks there in terms of response.
And I was just looking through that letter. It actually went to Congressman Carson. There are a number of us, both senators and members of our congressional delegation. And the question is on the review of this new system. It potentially involves here, and I quote from the letter, possibly including reductions in numbers of DFAS personnel at certain locations. We will make every effort to accommodate any changes through attrition.
I’m not here to get a specific answer from you but to better understand what is happening and how — I think there’s probably a trial plan that’s going to be put in place, if that rings a bell. What is you’re trying to accomplish and what are some of the consequences of that going to be to the current DFAS system, locations, personnel, et cetera?
SEN. TOM UDALL: Undersecretary Cohen, I just wanted to —
COATS: I just got a note saying I’m at the wrong hearing.
UDALL: Oh, OK.
COATS: I’ve got the right room number but the wrong hearing.
COHEN: Well, that would explain why I didn’t know anything about this letter. (Laughter.)
COATS: Well, this is the first time this has ever happened to me, but I hope it’s not a precursor of what —
UDALL: You’re always welcome in our committee.
COATS: Well, thank you. I saw some familiar faces and I thought this is where I should be.
COHEN: Thank you, Senator.
COATS: I hope you’re able to respond as quickly as the undersecretary of the Army responded. I’ll go try to find out where I’m supposed to be. Thank you.