Donald Trump’s top spy chief said “I don’t know what happened” during a one-on-one meeting between the president and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, then appeared surprised to hear the Russian leader was invited to Washington later this year.
Responding to a question at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado on Thursday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats also said he wouldn’t have recommended meeting with the Russian president alone, with only translators in the room on Monday.
“I would have suggested a different way, but that’s not my role, that’s not my job,” Coats said. “So it is what it is.”
The Trump-Putin meeting caused an uproar when the U.S. president, at a news conference alongside the Russia leader, appeared to give more credence to Putin’s denial that his country meddled in the 2016 election than to the conclusion of Coats and the U.S. intelligence community that it did. Hours later, before the president landed in Washington, Coats pushed back, defending the intelligence community’s conclusions and citing Russia’s “pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”
‘Correct the Record’
Asked why he put out the statement, Coats said he believed he needed to “correct the record” and take a stand on behalf of the intelligence community to remind people that the U.S. assessment of Russian involvement still stood.
“Obviously I wish he had made a different statement,” Coats said of Trump.
Since the summit, Trump has backed away from the comments he made alongside Putin, telling CBS News on Wednesday that “Dan Coats is excellent” and “I can only say that I do have confidence in our intelligence agencies as currently constituted.”
Coats seemed comfortable not falling into lockstep with his boss on Thursday, offering other examples of differences with the president in response to questions.
He said he wouldn’t have recommended inviting then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and other top Russian officials into the Oval Office in May last year. The visit came a day after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey over what he later said was the bureau’s continuing investigation into Russian election meddling.
Since the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki, Russian officials have said progress was made on a number of key issues from arms reduction to Syria. U.S. officials have had much less to say, and there’s no known recording of the one-on-one meeting to refer back to.
‘Call Them Out’
A 75-year-old former Republican senator and lobbyist, Coats said he told the president early in his tenure last year that his job at times would be to “bring news that you don’t want to hear” because the intelligence community strives to produce unvarnished, non-politicized reports. He said his experience to date shows that Russia seeks to undermine basic U.S. values and “wreak havoc” over the elections process.
“We need to call them out on that,” Coats said.
Asked what he tells his employees in the intelligence community when the president appears to question their work, Coats said: “We are professionals, we are here to provide professional service to our government. Just do your jobs.”
At the end of the on-stage interview, NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell said she had breaking news. Coats winced visibly before Mitchell announced that the White House said on Twitter that Putin was invited to visit Washington later this year.
“Say that again,” Coats replied, leaning in to better hear the statement. When Mitchell repeated the news to him, Coats leaned back and said, “That’s going to be special.”
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