If actions speak louder than words, Daniel Coats's actions practically screamed.
When NBC News's Andrea Mitchell informed the director of national intelligence there was news from the White House on Twitter, Coats could not help himself. He turned to the side and gave a startled look. When Mitchell delivered the news — that the White House had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington — Coats leaned in as if he did not trust his ears. “Say that again?”
It appeared all in good fun, but Coats was clearly only half-joking, if not 25 percent joking. Over the course of the interview, he rather diplomatically made it obvious he was not happy with President Trump's conduct alongside Putin at their summit in Helsinki. (“If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted, I would have suggested a different way,” Coasts said. “But that’s not my role; that’s not my job. So it is what it is.”) But it was also remarkably unplugged for a button-down former senator, who some of his old colleagues have likened to Mister Rogers.
It was also only the latest example of an administration official charged with combating foreign influence in the United States steeling their spines and sending signals about standing up to Trump — or at least working around him.
At the same Aspen Security Forum where Coats made his displeasure known, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray earlier in the week hinted he has considered resigning. Asked about such reports, Wray leaned into it. “I'm a low-key, understated guy, but that should not be mistaken for what my spine is made out of,” Wray said. “I'll just leave it at that.”
Perhaps the most notable recent example of this is Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who has responded to Trump's bullying and attacks on the Russia investigation Rosenstein oversees by increasingly adopting a confrontational approach. Rosenstein has recently hit back at Trump's Republican defenders in the House, including a curt retort that seemed to shut down Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) at a hearing last month. Then, in Aspen on Thursday, Rosenstein announced a new Justice Department policy to publicly disclose foreign interference in real time.
Trump probably will not like the upshot of those disclosures. Given pretty much everyone except Trump has acknowledged Russia is still interfering and will almost undoubtedly do so in the 2018 election, the interference Trump strongly prefers to pretend does not exist could come up at regular intervals. Trump is not on the ballot, but frequent reminders of American democracy being under attack by Russia could make it more difficult for him to continue to play the whole thing off as a sideshow.
None of these represent these officials going “rogue,” as some in the White House would like to portray Coats's appearance. (It is much more subtle than that.) But while congressional Republicans dance around criticizing a president who controls their base, some Trump-appointed officials charged with a higher duty than partisan politics seem to be doing what they can, around the edges, to cope with Trump making their jobs much more difficult. The confluence of Trump's Putin summit and the forum in Aspen laid that bare.