One of the heroes of Helsinki Week in Washington has been Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. After Donald Trump publicly sided with Vladimir Putin on the question of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Coats struck back, releasing a brief statement: Russia did, in fact, meddle.
In normal times, this would be a major story. Here you have the man who oversees the government’s vast intelligence apparatus, who on most days personally delivers the daily intelligence briefing to the president, openly correcting his boss. But the story doesn’t end there.
On Thursday, while onstage answering questions at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, Coats learned that the White House had just invited Putin to Washington this fall. He was surprised. “That’s going to be special,” he said, after pausing to absorb the news. Earlier, Coats had acknowledged that he did not know what had transpired in the two-hour-plus meeting between the Russian and American presidents in Helsinki on Monday.
This reminded me of a joke from the Clinton years. In 1994, when a small airplane crashed on the White House lawn in the middle of the night, a wisecrack made the rounds: It was CIA Director James Woolsey, trying to get a meeting with the president. The difference now is that Coats is not the only one in the dark about what the president is doing. The rest of Trump’s national security cabinet also seems painfully out of the loop.
This cannot be explained away as the typical jockeying for power that takes place in all administrations, with various officials vying for the president’s ear. This is a president who had regular meetings with John Bolton in the year before he formally hired him to replace his national security adviser at the time, General H.R. McMaster. In Trump’s White House, chaos is a feature, not a bug.
As Bloomberg reported this week, Trump approved the public release of the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers before his summit with Putin. And yet he didn’t press Putin on the issue when it came up in their press conference. Nor did the White House have any real interagency meetings to plan last month’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Meanwhile, a few days after Secretary of Defense James Mattis cited Montenegro’s membership in NATO as an example of how “we're stronger together,” reaffirming the U.S. commitment to the alliance’s mandate of mutual defense, Trump told Tucker Carlson of Fox News that he too wonders why U.S. forces should defend the tiny Balkan state, noting how such a commitment could lead to World War III.
All of this raises the question: If the president is going to ignore them, why should Trump’s national security cabinet members stick around? It’s an understandable impulse — and not just to pundits at the New York Times or The Washington Post.
But the chaos of Trump’s governing style can also have an upside, even with Russia. William Browder, the activist and hedge fund manager who Putin asked Trump to send to Russia for questioning, told me that he deplored the president’s comments but was pleased with his administration’s policy. From its enforcement of sanctions against senior Russian officials for human rights abuses to its sale of arms to Ukraine, the Trump administration has followed a much tougher line on Russia than Trump’s rhetoric would indicate.
This sensible Russia policy will soon be tested as the president moves forward with his outreach to Putin. Coats said on Thursday that he would not advise the president to meet one-on-one with the Russian leader again. It’s a safe bet that this advice will be ignored.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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