Dan Coats resignation: Trump values leaders who protect him over those who defend America

Katrina Mulligan

The U.S. intelligence community does not exist to tell the president what he wants to hear. But contradicting Donald Trump may have led Trump to replace the nation’s chief intelligence adviser.

Trump announced Sunday that the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, will step down Aug. 15, ending a tenure punctuated by public statements that put him at odds with the president. Trump’s choice to succeed Coats is a vocal Trump supporter, Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas. His theatrical rebuke of former special counsel Robert Mueller during last week’s House Judiciary Committee hearing might have tipped the scales in his favor.

As the nation’s top intelligence official, the DNI oversees the management of the intelligence community and is the principal adviser to the president and the National Security Council on intelligence matters. Coats proved to be a steady and effective intelligence chief. But despite his popularity with the intelligence oversight committees and the career intelligence workforce, he was much less popular with Trump, who was often irked by intelligence assessments that contradicted his views.

Intelligence vs. Trump

Coats angered Trump last year when he appeared to criticize the president’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Aspen Security Forum. Trump was also displeased in January when Coats contradicted the administration in testimony before Congress. He asserted that North Korea was unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons (an assessment that has proved accurate) and also broke with the administration on Iran and the Islamic State terrorist organization. Trump was so displeased by Coats’ assessment that Iran was complying with the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal that he tweeted: “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”

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Despite persistent rumors of conflict with the White House, DNI Coats was one of only a few Trump administration officials who remained in his post two-and-a-half years into the term, and he may have been the only one still willing to tell the president things Trump didn’t want to hear. By nominating a partisan like Ratcliffe to replace Coats, Trump is signaling, again, that he values leaders who protect him over those who defend America. 

The entrance to the CIA is famously dominated by the chiseled words, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) And as CIA Director Robert Gates said in a 1992 address, “Truth, insofar as we can determine it, is what our work is all about.” It is no surprise that Trump has removed the only official in his orbit formally charged with telling him the truth.

National Intelligence Director Dan Coats in Washington, D.C., in 2018.

The intelligence community’s primary role is to provide the best and most objective information possible about the threats and opportunities facing the United States, without regard to politics. Yet, the president and many of his advisers appear to believe they are entitled to intelligence analysis that supports White House policies — and that doesn’t undermine or second-guess the assessments of political staff. They are certainly not the first to try to cherry-pick intelligence information and analysis to support their foreign policy goals. For as long as intelligence has been collected and analyzed, it has been susceptible to political bias. But history has shown, over and over again, that politicizing intelligence is not only unwise and embarrassing, it is also dangerous. 

America learned that lesson most obviously in 2003, when intelligence was politicized to support the Bush administration’s decision to go to war. Henry Kissinger also reportedly sidestepped many of the established intelligence processes during the Vietnam War. Similar allegations surfaced during the Nixon administration, when the White House was accused of politicizing intelligence on the Soviet threat. And more recently when 50 U.S. Central Command intelligence analysts complained that senior officials had altered their assessments on ISIS, according to the Daily Beast. 

Don't politicize intelligence

While the politicization of intelligence is a problem as old as our intelligence institutions themselves, the Trump presidency presents a new, more dangerous threat. Unlike his predecessors, Trump expects, and even demands, that government institutions serve his interests at the expense of the country’s. He has replaced nearly every official who has contradicted him, while lavishing praise on those who obediently parroted his talking points. 

As former DNI James Clapper noted last year, Trump is overseeing “an assault on truth and those institutions that depend on the truth.” 

If confirmed, Ratcliffe will be the least qualified DNI since the office’s inception. He was a small-town mayor for eight years and a U.S. attorney for a year before coming to Congress in 2015. He has been on the House Homeland Security Committee since he arrived, though not its Intelligence and Counterterrorism Subcommittee, and on the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence for seven months.

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How does he compare with his predecessors?

John Negroponte (2005-07) served as deputy national security adviser to Ronald Reagan and spent more than 40 years in the Foreign Service,  including as ambassador to the United Nations, Iraq and Mexico. 

Mike McConnell (2007-09) was intelligence chief for former secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell and spent nearly three decades in the Navy. 

Dennis Blair (2009-10) served for more than 30 years in the Navy, including as commander in chief of Pacific Command.

James Clapper (2010-17) spent more than 50 years in the intelligence community, including as undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Coats (2017-19) was a senator for over 15 years, served on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and was the ambassador to Germany. 

As the Beltway speculates about whether Ratcliffe will have the integrity to withstand the politicization of intelligence that has cost Coats his job, the Democrats’ 2020 candidates should take note. The intelligence community is in crisis, and whoever wins in 2020 will inherit at best a demoralized intelligence workforce and at worst an intelligence community whose mission, workforce and values have been under siege. A new administration will need a plan for restoring public confidence in the intelligence community and setting it on a sustainable course for the future. If they are wise, their first step in putting the intelligence community back together will be to nominate a DNI with integrity, who will serve the nation even if it means being at odds with the president. 

Katrina Mulligan is the managing director for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter: @NatSecMulligan

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump values leaders who protect him like John Ratcliffe