The Kremlin was no fan of Daniel Coats.
It was March 2014, and relations between the United States and Russia were nose-diving. Russian military forces had just taken over Crimea, an operation that Moscow quickly followed up by illegally annexing a portion of Ukraine in a geopolitical power grab denounced by Western nations. In retaliation, the Obama administration ordered new economic sanctions. Firing back, the Kremlin announced a list of U.S. officials banned from entering Russia. The blacklisted Congress members including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Daniel Coats (R-Ind.), then a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee urging a tough response against the Crimea incursion.
Coats — a well-respected Washington fixture who was once referred to by a Senate colleague as the chamber’s “Mister Rogers” — brushed off the Russian ban with a pinch of wry Midwestern humor.
“While I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to go on vacation with my family in Siberia this summer, I am honored to be on this list,” the Indiana senator said in a statement, The Washington Post reported at the time. “Putin’s recent aggression is unacceptable, and America must join with our European allies to isolate and punish Russia.”
Four years later, Coats, now director of national intelligence, is again pushing back against a Russian agenda, a stance that has pitched him into conflict with his boss.
In the wake of President Trump’s summit this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the White House has been engulfed in mixed messages, at best, about whether Trump believes that Russian agents interfered in the 2016 election.
But amid the clashing voices, Coats has struck a clear, strong note. On Monday, following the president’s news conference with Putin in Helsinki, Coats responded with a statement saying the intelligence community has “been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling.”
During an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell at the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday, Coats admitted he would have advised against the one-on-one meeting between Trump and Putin — but he was not consulted. In front of a crowd of elite newsmakers, journalists, government officials and academics, Coats made no effort to pretend that he was anything but dumbfounded by the news, which he had not heard, that the administration was planning to invite Putin to Washington in the fall.
“That’s going to be special,” Coats said almost mockingly, to the laughter of the audience.
The comments this week underscore that Coats, as an in-house reality check on Trump regarding Russian interference, is increasingly at odds with Trump’s own feelings. The collision between the administration’s voice of reason and the volatile president has sparked speculation that Coats may not be long for the administration.
Coats’s situation is all the more precarious in that he sits atop the country’s intelligence apparatus, the complex of more than a dozen agencies regularly blasted by Trump and his supporters as the “deep state.”
The Indiana Republican has checked off a number of government roles in his decades-long public service career — including U.S. House member, senator, ambassador and lobbyist.
A Michigan native, Coats served two years in the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers before arriving in Indiana for law school. In the 1970s, he went to work for then-Rep. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), following the future vice president to Washington. In 1980, Coats won Quayle’s House district; when Quayle shifted to the White House in 1988, Coats was appointed to fill his Senate seat. He was then elected on his own, serving until 1999.
During the George W. Bush administration, Coats was appointed U.S. ambassador to Germany, taking up the post weeks before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks launched Bush’s “global war on terror.” In May 2004, Coats was tasked with one of the touchier bits of foreign diplomacy related to those wide-reaching conflicts. As The Post’s Dana Priest reported in 2005, the ambassador was dispatched to explain to German authorities that U.S. intelligence agents had wrongfully imprisoned a German national in a covert action. Coats had to urge the Germans to keep the situation quiet, to prevent other operations from being exposed.
In 2010, Coats was reelected to the Senate, where he established himself as a social and fiscal conservative — his “Waste of the Week” speeches from the chamber floor highlighted profligate government spending. But Coats’s low-key manner also inspired bipartisan respect, particularly with his work on the Intelligence Committee.
“I always thought he should wear a red cardigan,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) told the New York Times in 2017. “He was the closest thing to Mister Rogers we could come up with.”
“He’s not a fierce partisan and knows the intelligence community,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told the Times. “He’s very amiable and easy to work with.”
Coats was not an early Trump supporter. He initially backed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in 2016. Yet when the Trump administration announced that Coats had been chosen for the top intelligence job, the news was met with approving nods from members of both parties.
“I worked with Dan. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He was a great Intelligence Committee member. Obviously he’s got a background as well as a foreign ambassador,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) told The Post two weeks before Trump’s inauguration. “The only concern I have, and it’s not specific to Daniel Coats, but it is to all the president-elect’s nominees in this area, is that the job of speaking truth to power is intel’s top responsibility.”
But Kremlin chicanery in the 2016 presidential contest has continually shadowed Coats’s tenure as director of national intelligence. In prepared remarks at his confirmation hearing, Coats spoke clearly about Putin’s global threat.
“Russia’s assertiveness in global affairs is something I look upon with great concern, which we need to address with eyes wide open and a healthy degree of skepticism,” he said. Pressed by members of the Intelligence Committee, Coats said he supported a full investigation into Russian influence on the election.
“I think this is something that needs to be investigated and addressed,” the nominee said.
As director of national intelligence, Coats has repeatedly addressed Trump and possible collusion. In May 2017, The Post reported that the president asked both Coats and Adm. Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, to publicly deny a link between Russian activities and the 2016 election. Both officials refused to comply, The Post reported. Neither Coats nor Rogers answered questions about the exchange when quizzed by the Intelligence Committee in June.
“Just because it’s published in The Washington Post doesn’t mean it’s now unclassified,” Coats told the committee.
But Coats has also strongly warned of future threats tied to Russian interference.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian midterm operations,” Coats told Congress in February.
And he reiterated the threat this week with his rebuke of Trump’s news conference comments. Speaking with Mitchell in Aspen on Thursday, Coats explained his thinking.
“I just felt at this point in time that what we had assessed and reassessed and reassessed, and carefully gone over, still stands,” he said. “And that it was important to make that stand on behalf of the intelligence community and on behalf of the American people.”