Thursday is Dan Coats’s last day as director of national intelligence, the top US government position in charge of producing official US intelligence community assessments of worldwide risks.
His departure ends one of the last connections between President Donald Trump‘s cabinet and the Republican national security establishment, raising concerns in Congress as the president increasingly surrounds himself with personal loyalists or career government officials limited to temporary appointments.
Trump’s relationship with Coats, 76, has been fraught from the beginning.
Interviewing for the job, Coats, a former senator who served as the US ambassador to Germany from 2001 to 2005, stressed his independence from political influence, telling Trump “that this position is frequently the bearer of bad news”, as he told the US Senate during his confirmation.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was created by Congress after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US amid recognitions of US intelligence failures.
The DNI oversees and coordinates 16 spy agencies within the US government – including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the intelligence branch of the FBI and the intelligence arms of each of the military departments – with an annual budget of over $80bn.
Running into trouble
Coats ran into trouble with Trump within months of taking office in 2017, after Trump reportedly asked Coats and Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, to say publicly there was no evidence Trump had colluded with Russia in 2016.
The Mueller probe report cited testimony from Coats’s deputies that Trump had asked Coats to intervene with then-FBI Director James Comey to “stop” the investigation.
In July 2018, at a meeting in Helsinki, Trump appeared to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin in denying the US intelligence community’s conclusion – produced by Coats – that Russian hackers had interfered in the 2016 election.
Coats refuted the president publicly the next day, issuing a terse public statement: “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. “We will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence”.
At a security forum appearance in Aspen, Coats acknowledged he did not know what had transpired between Putin and Trump during their Helsinki meetings. There had been no US government officials present, except a translator.
In an embarrassing admission for the US’s top spy, Coats said he was “not in a position to understand fully or talk about what happened in Helsinki”.
In January, Coats undercut Trump’s rosy predictions for nuclear diplomacy with North Korea, telling a Senate Committee the intelligence community’s assessment that Kim Jong Un would not give up his nuclear weapons. Coats also contradicted Trump’s claims that ISIL had been defeated in Syria.
The next day, Trump issued a series of tweets disputing Coats’s assessments of both North Korea and ISIL.
‘The difficulty in serving in this administration’
Former DNI James Clapper, who has been a critic of Trump, told National Public Radio in July that Coats’s departure was a “big loss” for the US intelligence community and “emblematic of the difficulty in serving in this administration”.
Trump’s initial pick to replace Coats, Republican Representative John Ratcliffe, withdrew after senators raised concerns he would be too partisan for the role. Most recently, Ratcliffe had attacked former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s work on the Russia investigation.
In addition to Coats’s removal, Trump’s White House has asked for and received the resignation of Principal Deputy DNI Sue Gordon, who otherwise would have become interim DNI in Coats’s absence.
Trump viewed her as too close to former CIA Director John Brennan who has clashed sharply and repeatedly with the president over Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.
“Ratcliffe showed abject subservience to Trump in Mueller hearings,” Brennan said in a tweet on July 29.
“The women & men of the Intelligence Community deserve a leader like Coats who puts nation first; not a servile Trump loyalist like Ratcliffe.”
With Coats’s departure, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is the only remaining member of Trump’s original national security team. Pompeo had previously been CIA Director and was given the role after former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired by Trump in March 2018.
Tillerson told the House of Representatives in May that he had been undermined by the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who conducted diplomacy with foreign dignitaries without informing him.
Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned at the end of 2018 in a policy dispute with Trump over US troop levels in Syria. Mattis was not replaced permanently until last month when Army Secretary Mark Esper, a former defence industry lobbyist, was thrust into the role.
Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who implemented Trump’s controversial “family separation” policy at the southwest US border, was forced to resign in April after Trump announced he wanted to take a tougher stance on immigration.
The top DHS position is currently held in an “acting” capacity by Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection.
Trump now is consulting with the Republican leadership on the Senate Intelligence Committee about several candidates, including US Ambassador to the Netherlands Pete Hoekstra, a former Republican congressman who chaired the House Intelligence Committee from 2004 to 2007.
“I like Hoekstra a lot. He’s great. He’s doing a fantastic job in the Netherlands right now,” Trump told reporters at the White House on August 9.
Former Navy Vice Admiral Joseph Maguire, the present director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will serve as interim DNI, the president announced on August 8.
Maguire’s job will be tough, working with “a White House that continuously breaks long-standing norms that have governed the intelligence community,” Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on Senate Intelligence, said in a statement on August 9.
“His success or failure in this position will be judged by the quality of work produced by the intelligence community, not by how those intelligence products make the president feel,” Warner said.
“Given the circumstances of his appointment as Acting DNI, it is more important than ever that Admiral Maguire stands by that commitment to speak truth to power,” he said.