INDIANAPOLIS — Two years ago, Hoosier U.S. Sen. Dan Coats was preparing for a well-deserved retirement. Then came Donald Trump, who swept into power just as Coats was about to let go the reins of power.
Coats’ evolution would be fitful, particularly during the pre-nomination era. He confided to NWI Times columnist Doug Ross, “I wake up every morning and the first question I ask is, ‘What did he say last night?’”
With Trump’s epic election upset, Vice President-elect Mike Pence urged Coats to join the administration as director of national intelligence. Coats had the pedigree.
He landed in Berlin as ambassador to Germany just hours (literally) before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. In that capacity, Coats played a vital role in the invoking of NATO’s Article V, which brought the alliance to America’s side as it began assaulting al-Qaeda warrens in Afghanistan. It is the only time in seven decades that Article V has been invoked.
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The new ambassador spoke at the Brandenburg Gate to 200,000 Germans who turned out to show solidarity with America, with a visibly moved Coats embracing a clench-jawed German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. It was the NATO alliance at its inspirational best.
Seventeen years later came the week from Hel … sinki. President Trump rattled European capitals and the Washington establishment by castigating NATO, suggesting he might leave the alliance, while calling the European Union a “foe.” Trump disappeared behind closed doors with Putin for more than two hours with just two translators. Coats was back in Washington.
As Coats prepared to take the helm of U.S. intelligence, he prophetically told Doug Ross in January 2017, “Everybody underestimated, and they shouldn’t have, Vladimir Putin. He’s been two or three moves ahead of us on everything.”
A critical prelude had come three days before the Trump/Putin summit, when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced 12 indictments of Russian GRU intelligence officers in Robert Mueller’s Russia collusion probe for assaulting the U.S. elections.
Coats laid out his own markers in an extraordinary address at the Hudson Institute that same day, literally saying that the “warning lights” with Russia are “blinking again.” Coats then overtly warned Putin: “If your goal is to strengthen Russia at the cost to us … we’re not going to get anywhere. President Putin, the decision is up to you. We know you run the shop. We know you’re making the decisions. But if you want to stay in this tit-for-tat, we’re going to beat you.”
Coats explained at Hudson his daily intel briefing. “Almost without fail, the longest section of this news roundup is the section on cyber issues, which details multiple reports of cyber attacks and alerts,” Coats explained. “This issue affects all of us. Every day, foreign actors — the worst offenders being Russia, China, Iran and North Korea — are penetrating our digital infrastructure and conducting a range of cyber intrusions and attacks against targets in the United States.”
Little did Coats know that within an hour after conclusion of the Trump/Putin summit, he would be thrust into the Trumpian maelstrom. Asked by the AP’s Jon Lemire if Trump believed U.S. intelligence services or Putin when it came to the 2016 assault on the U.S. election process, Trump responded: “All I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coats and others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be. I have great confidence in my intelligence people. But I will tell you President Putin was extremely strong in his denial.”
Trump tried to walk that back on Tuesday with his “double negative defense,” saying he meant to say, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t.” On Wednesday, Trump was asked if he believed Russia was assaulting the U.S. mid-term elections and he answered, “No.”
Coats issued a terse statement independent of the White House just hours after the Trump/Putin summit, saying, “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
After these head-spinning scenarios, the eyes of the world were on Coats. Would he resign in protest?
Former senator and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar told me on Tuesday, “Dan Coats should stay right where he is. He is doing a superb job. Dan was one of the few who was prepared to help the president, to indicate precisely the dangers of cyber attacks coming from Russia or anywhere else, though he made the case with Russia.”
Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, a former aide to Sen. Coats, told me, “I think his MO is to be a calm, insistent voice of reason and reality in the swirling chaos of the Trump administration. Unlike the president, Coats’ service is not about egotism; it is about patriotism.”
I’ve known Dan Coats for more than two decades. He is a true American patriot. All of us should pray that he stays on board for the next two-plus years.
Brian A. Howey of Nashville is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol. Send comments to [email protected].