Coats was caught so off guard when NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported the news in the middle of a televised interview at the Aspen Security Forum that he did what much of the rest of the world did at that moment, responding with a startled, “Say that again?” There was no effort to hide the fact that he was as much in the dark as anyone outside of government. “Did I hear you right?” he said with a laugh, and to much laughter from the audience. And then this about the possible meeting: “That’s going to be special.”
This was a moment of levity, but for all the wrong reasons. That the nation’s highest intelligence official did not know that an invitation to Putin, a foreign adversary, was in the works only highlighted the apparent dysfunction of the government on the most sensitive of matters. Coats’s reaction summed up a week in which — not for the first time — there were worrisome questions raised about the capacity of the administration, and especially the White House, to function effectively on behalf of the country.
From start to present, the meeting between Trump and Putin has produced one head-shaking statement after another, leaving experts inside government to scramble and the world at large to puzzle over exactly what happened during the time the two leaders were together. It has been a nonstop example of a president operating at cross purposes with his staff and some officials operating in ignorance.
Recall that, ahead of the Trump-Putin session, expectations were dampened by the administration. Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, explained that this event was not to be seen as a summit, but only as a “meeting.” The president was equally low-key in describing the get-together. He said there was no particular agenda for Helsinki, that it would be a “loose meeting” and that his goal was really just to get to know Putin better. He told CBS News anchor Jeff Glor, “I go in with low expectations.”
But after Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, filed the indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence officers on July 13, while Trump was in London cleaning up a small mess from an interview in which he was critical of British Prime Minister Theresa May, the “loose meeting” suddenly had a focus — and certainly not one the president appreciated.
Still, the impact hardly penetrated his consciousness, or so it seemed when CBS’s Glor asked whether Trump would press Putin to hand over the 12 indicted officers. “Well, I might,” he replied, adding, “I hadn’t really thought of that.”
The Helsinki news conference spoke for itself, and the after-action critiques of the president tended to be brutal. He and Putin had met for two hours, joined only by their translators. In public, the president declined to criticize the Russians for interference and indicated that he agreed more with Putin’s denial than the conclusion of U.S. intelligence of nefarious Russian actions in 2016.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” George Shultz, who was secretary of state in the Reagan administration, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he agreed with McCain’s assessment.
For Trump, things did not get better, or clearer, quickly. The presidential walk-back of his news conference performance was slow to happen, grudgingly delivered and awkward in its ultimate messaging. He said he accepted the intelligence community’s conclusion that the Russians interfered in 2016, and then went off script to add, “Could be other people also; there’s a lot of people out there.” Which is not exactly what the intelligence community said.
The next morning, there was another uproar when Trump responded “no” to a question about whether he believed, as Coats had said the previous week, that the Russians were continuing to target the U.S. election system. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later said he was saying no to more questions at the photo op.
Those were not the only confusing aspects of the post-summit news. After the two leaders left Helsinki, the Russians indicated that the meeting had produced some important agreements. Exactly what was or wasn’t agreed to by Trump and Putin remains a mystery. Other officials were hard-pressed to explain what Putin might be talking about or why the president had labeled a low-expectations meeting with no particular agenda such a success. When Coats was asked by Mitchell whether he knew what transpired during the two-hour one-on-one between the two leaders, he said no.
Adding to the mystery, the president tweeted after arriving back in the United States, “While the NATO meeting in Brussels was an acknowledged triumph, with billions of dollars more being put up by member countries at a faster pace, the meeting with Russia may prove to be, in the long run, an even greater success. Many positive things will come out of that meeting.” Of course, that came around the same time that Trump, in an interview with Tucker Carlson of Fox News, called into question the U.S. commitment to NATO’s Article 5, the requirement to joint defense of any member that comes under attack by another country.
There was also the bizarre handling of Putin’s cynical “offer” to invite U.S. and Russian officials to cooperate by coming to Russia to interview the indicted military officers. This also included a call by the Russians to interview, or interrogate, some U.S. officials who the Russians claim have interfered in their country, including Michael McFaul, the former ambassador to Russia.
When Putin mentioned this at the news conference, Trump responded by saying, “He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer.”
Sanders was later pressed about this by reporters when everyone was back in Washington. “The president is going to meet with his team, and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that,” she replied, making it sound as though the “offer” were being treated seriously. Meanwhile, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert was calling the idea “absolutely absurd.”
On Thursday, the Senate went on record, 98 to 0, against any such exchange. Minutes earlier, Sanders issued a statement in an effort to clear it up, though even that statement was worded in a way that seemed designed to give least offense to Putin. “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin,” her statement said, “but President Trump disagrees with it. Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”
McFaul, for the record, does not regard the offer as having been made “in sincerity” and believes it would be desirable for the administration to be far more forceful in warning that such efforts by the Russians will do serious damage to the relationship between the two countries.
The story continues. Still pending is the proposed autumn visit to Washington by the Russian president, coming in the closing weeks of one of the most consequential midterm elections in memory. What process produced this invitation? It came, seemingly, even before there could be a full assessment of what happened in Helsinki and probably with no time for the president’s national security team to weigh the pros and cons of Trump’s desire for a second meeting.
Last Monday, Coats was quick to respond after the president’s Helsinki comments, making clear he stood by the findings of the intelligence community and would continue to provide the president with unvarnished assessments. His comments to Mitchell in Aspen, Colo., on Thursday, beyond his reactions to the invitation to Putin to come to Washington, highlighted a willingness to disagree publicly but politely with the president while trying to remain true to his pledge to serve the country. He is not alone.
That is one more measure of these times, of a president and executive branch officials operating on separate tracks and a White House staff struggling to constrain a president determined to make his own rules, whatever his advisers might think.