While Kagan didn’t offer a firm answer in that May 2017 column, it was clear where he thought the answer was heading: “The odds are much better that, whether they stay or go, things are going to get worse,” he wrote. “. . . The ‘adults’ have been more window dressing than guardrails.”
Well, Kagan was right. Things have gotten worse.
But let me offer a pessimist’s view: Things could get worse still. A lot worse. And that argues for the “adults” staying as long as they can manage to do so.
As nauseating as it was to see Trump equate the credibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin with that of America’s intelligence chief, Daniel Coats, the summit with Putin could have been more disastrous. As he intimated in the days leading up to the meeting, Trump could have sold out Crimea, Ukraine, NATO, the European Union. As far as we know, he did not do any of those things. If he had not been surrounded by Coats, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, CIA chief Gina Haspel, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser John Bolton; if he were listening only, say, to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Stephen K. Bannon, Sean Hannity — and to his own instincts — he might have done all of those things.
Of course, after the events of the past few days, no one could fault Coats if he did resign.
On Friday, Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana and ambassador to Germany, said that warning lights about cyberattacks are “blinking red,” just as the terrorist threat was flashing before 9/11 in 2001. The leading threat, he said, is Russia — not just to interfere in the 2018 elections but to sabotage key American infrastructure.
“The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, in coordination with international partners, have detected Russian government actors targeting government and businesses in the energy, nuclear, water, aviation and critical manufacturing sectors,” Coats said.
Trump’s response? “I don’t know if I agree with that,” he told CBS News on Saturday.
Then on Monday, in a joint appearance with Putin, Trump said that Coats tells him one thing, Putin tells him another, and “I have confidence in both parties.”
On one hand, America’s intelligence chief, warning the president of dangers to his nation’s dams, nuclear power plants and airports. On the other, the alleged source of those dangers. And Trump has “confidence in both.”
No doubt this is disheartening for Coats, if not humiliating.
But Coats should know: It is hugely valuable to the nation to hear a truthful assessment from someone in his position, when truth at the top is in such short supply.
It is especially valuable when so much of the Republican Party has lost its way, its values and its spine. When much of Congress has been, at least until now, afraid to challenge Trump’s kowtowing to Putin, it matters all the more that Coats has been willing to state simple truths.
Which he did again, in plain words, after Trump’s news conference: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” Coats said, “and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
It has become a truism that no reputation is enhanced by service in this administration; just ask Rex Tillerson. And every official has to decide for himself or herself what is the breaking point — bowing to dictators, endorsing racist violence in Charlottesville, tearing children from their parents at the border.
But if Coats still thinks he can do some good for the country by offering Trump “unvarnished and objective intelligence,” I’m not ready to say he’s wrong.
I cannot be sure he’s right, of course. But I am sure things could be worse.