His selection comes at a time when the incoming administration’s views on the quality and value of U.S. intelligence-gathering are unclear at best.
Trump has directly cast doubt on intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the Nov. 8 election and caused a stir when he waved off some in-person briefings from intelligence professionals to which he was entitled as president-elect. He is due to receive a classified briefing Friday on the intelligence community's finding that Russia meddled in the election, at least in part to help get Trump elected.
Coats would probably bring a strongly skeptical view of Russia to the job. In 2014, as part of the Kremlin’s response to U.S. and European sanctions for its actions in Ukraine, Coats was one of several members of Congress who were banned from Russia.
“While I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to go on vacation with my family in Siberia this summer,” Coats said at the time, “I am honored to be on this list,”
The Indiana Republican was seen as a hawk on Russia issues in the Senate, where his most recent term ended this week when the 114th Congress concluded. A member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he pushed for even heavier sanctions over what he called Russia’s territorial aggression, particularly its annexation of Crimea and military backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Coats also served in the chamber from 1989 to 1999 and was ambassador to Germany from 2001 to 2005. While in Germany, he was involved in the cleanup after a bungled intelligence operation in which the CIA kidnapped a German citizen on the mistaken assumption that he was a terrorist. Coats was detailed to explain the mistake to the German government and ask that it not reveal what had happened.
Coats would need to win confirmation by the Senate, where his relationships and reputation as a diligent and even-tempered colleague may help. He also had good working relationships with Democrats.
“Dan Coats is a good choice. Serious. Respected,” former Obama national security spokesman Tommy Vietor said Thursday on Twitter.
Coats also worked as a lobbyist for a period and had foreign firms or governments as clients, which could be an issue raised at his confirmation hearing.
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) praised Coats but sounded a note of caution about the difficulty he might have confronting his boss with bad or unwelcome news.
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“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,” Warner said in an interview.
“The only concern I have, and it’s not specific to Dan 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,” Warner said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has crossed swords with Trump over Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, also praised Coats. “It’ll be great, he’s one of my favorite people,” McCain said. “I also like see these old geezers given another chance.”
Coats was not initially a Trump supporter; he endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) less than a month before Rubio ended his bid.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) was born out of recommendations in the 9/11 Commission Report to better coordinate and synthesize intelligence collected by multiple agencies.
Trump has been weighing an overhaul, but not elimination, of the office for weeks, a matter that has factored into the delay in nominating someone to serve in the position, according to members of Trump’s transition team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Some of Trump’s top advisers on intelligence matters, including Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, are skeptical of the value of the ODNI position. Trump’s choice for national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, may have a more personal animus toward the office. Flynn was fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., who is among those scheduled to meet with Trump in New York on Friday.
The threat to dismantle the ODNI, which was reported by the Wall Street Journal and denied by the Trump transition team, may have been designed to send a message in advance of that high-stakes intelligence briefing. It would remind Clapper and others scheduled to attend that Trump — who is likely to be accompanied by Flynn — holds significant power over the fates of their agencies.
Philip Rucker, Greg Miller, Ed O’Keefe and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.