With the imminent departure of Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, President Trump has nearly completed his purge of independent minds.
Coats’s proposed replacement, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.), is so manifestly unqualified that he may face confirmation problems with the Senate Intelligence Committee. But this is presumably the point. Trump’s proposed director of national intelligence, his secretary of state (Mike Pompeo), his defense secretary (Mark T. Esper), his acting chief of staff (Mick Mulvaney), and his national security adviser (John Bolton) are leaders who owe their prominence to Trump’s largesse and have no intention of either checking or limiting the president. This was not true of Coats, a former senator and ambassador, former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, four-star generals Jim Mattis and John F. Kelly, and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who served in those same positions, respectively.
This new team is a much better fit for Trump’s theory of leadership. He seems to think he looks larger if he surrounds himself with dependent and ingratiating figures. But the opposite is true. President Harry S. Truman was a more imposing leader because he surrounded himself with giants such as George Marshall and Dean Acheson. Trump is diminished by his hunger for panting deference.
Coats was willing to speak truth to power in an administration that fears and despises inconvenient truth. Playing this role is a particularly difficult and admirable form of public service. When it comes to election interference by foreign powers, or the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, Trump prefers to live in pleasing dreams and views honesty as disloyalty to his person. As director of national intelligence (DNI), Coats has been a model of intelligence objectivity, even under White House pressure — earning him the respect of career intelligence professionals. For evidence, look at his remarks to the Hudson Institute in July 2018. “It was in the months prior to September 2001 when, according to then-CIA Director George Tenet, the system was blinking red,” Coats said. “And here we are nearly two decades later, and I’m here to say the warning lights are blinking red again. Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
The mandate of the Office of the DNI is relatively weak. It does not steal secrets or conduct covert actions. It coordinates intelligence collection from across the U.S. government, looks for patterns that constitute threats, and provides information to people who need it. Much of the DNI’s influence depends on building collegial relationships with agency directors, and raising internal and external awareness of gathering challenges. Ratcliffe lacks standing in the intelligence community and is unlikely to raise issues that make Trump uncomfortable. He is likely to be a weak DNI. This will be welcomed by a system that enjoys its turf wars — and by rivals who prefer to conduct their sabotage without attention.
But the departure of Coats from public service is important in other, less obvious ways. Thirty years ago, as a newly appointed senator from Indiana, Coats gave me my first job in government. I still have no idea what he saw in such a green, awkward introvert. But I know what I received from him. Serving in Coats’s office was like a vaccine against political cynicism. He was one of the original compassionate conservatives, driven by conscience to promote the work of private and religious charities fighting addiction and homelessness. He believed Republicans should have something distinctive to offer in the pursuit of social healing and justice. He was eager to work with Democratic senators on innovative policy ideas. And, in public and private, he was unfailingly decent, kind and humble.
This last attribute marks him as a different kind of political figure. He seems to have some genetic mutation that makes him immune to arrogance and self-importance. Some of this may be the result of Hoosier niceness — a very real cultural phenomenon. But much of it comes from a deep religious faith that habituates the heart in a certain manner — the character that comes from a long obedience in the same direction.
This is not the spirit of the age. But would American public life be better off with more empathy, more cross-party cooperation, more policy creativity, more simple kindness and less anger and arrogance? Anyone who affirms this should hope that Coats has successors, as well as a further act in his own story.
Coats is proof that a successful public figure can also be an uncommonly decent man. His calm competence will be missed. And I will always be grateful that my first experience of politics was working for one of the finest human beings I’ve known.