During an onstage interview at the Aspen Security Forum hours after Trump tweeted the announcement, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News asked Coats about it. After a brief deer-in-the-headlights moment, he responded with, "That’ll be special." He also admitted that he had no clue what Trump and Putin had discussed behind closed doors in Helsinki days earlier.
One of this administration’s few consistencies is the president’s blindsiding of his top advisers in this way. Which leads to an important question: How long can these people take it? Pundits and former officials have been urging them to resign in indignation. At the Aspen conference, NBC’s Peter Alexander asked Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen not only if she was throwing in the towel, but whether her mentor, White House chief of staff John Kelly, was also on his way out.
Before taking up that point, let me offer a word about the conference. Taking place annually on the immaculate grounds of the Aspen Institute just up the Roaring Fork River from the celebrity-studded resort, the forum is a four-day chatfest for politicians, diplomats, spies, generals and some very fortunate journalists like yours truly. One of the highlights each year is a dinner at the expansive home of former Democratic Representative Jane Harman. And the highlight of that is always a magic show put on by — I’m not making this up — CIA legend John McLaughlin.
In a career spanning from the Vietnam War to the Iraq invasion, McLaughlin delivered good news and bad to a passel of presidents, rising eventually to acting CIA director under George W. Bush. He’s a man who knows a lot of history and a lot of secrets, and during a lull between panels, he agreed to share some with me. Here is an edited transcript of our discussion:
Tobin Harshaw: Were you as gobsmacked as the rest of us that the director of national intelligence had to find out about Trump’s inviting Putin to the White House from Andrea Mitchell in front of the crowd at the Aspen Security Forum?
John E. McLaughlin: Surprised but not gobsmacked. In other words, so many things in this administration happen from Trump’s brain to his thumb to the world that it doesn’t surprise me that others may not have been consulted. That’s a bad thing, in that it means he’s wandered into this second meeting with Putin without the advice of many people who could explain strategy, potential pitfalls and opportunities for success.
TH: Do you think that Coats can stay in the job much longer? How about CIA Director Gina Haspel?
JEM: I think they can stay on the job. That’s a bold prediction given this administration. But the reason I think they can is that they have this rather unique mandate to speak the truth. In other words, it’s not the secretary of commerce or the secretary of energy or of housing and urban development — with no disrespect meant to those great departments. But the thing on which intelligence leaders fail, should they fail to do it, is speaking the truth, in the sense of what they know to be the case and what they believe to be right.
So I think they have that as a bit of a shield. It doesn’t mean they can’t be fired, but firing them carries a different message than it does to fire someone for failings in implementing the latest change in Social Security.
TH: Would you quit if you were still there today?
JEM: Not over that. What I hope Coats does is just continue to do his job.
TH: What I’m really wondering is if you think you would have been able to work under Trump.
JEM: I think the question of whether to work for him presents for everyone a dilemma: Do you serve because the nation needs someone with expertise to serve honorably, or do you take the risk that your service will not succeed in helping America accomplish what you believe it needs to accomplish. And that’s just a judgment call.
Knowing what I know at this moment, I almost certainly wouldn’t. I have a rule for when you leave government — because I had to think about it when I left government: When you are offering advice, be prepared for it to be rejected — because that’s fair; you’re one voice among many — but when you offer advice and it’s consistently rejected, and the bad thing you’ve warned about happens over and over and over again even though you’ve got a track record of having seen something correctly, it’s probably time to leave.
TH: Let’s go back to Trump and Putin. Do you consider that relationship a national security threat?
JEM: I think there’s an element of threat to it. I think it would be too simple to say that Trump is just his puppet. That may be true, but we don’t know that. That imagery is too strong and too unsupported by concrete evidence.
But there is a degree of threat in that Trump is not prepared to deal with Putin, who is exceptionally careful, prepares very well, has 18 years of experience as a senior leader of a country, and is trained to manipulate other people. Trump, I fear, operates on a supreme confidence formed in a real estate world without the kind of challenges that you face in dealing with a crafty foreign policy leader of an authoritarian state.
Having dealt with Russians frequently — and I don’t dislike Russians — I learned that you have to know two things when you go into a meeting with them. First, you have to know precisely what you want and what you’re prepared to accept. Second, you have to know what they want and what they’re going to tell you. You have to calculate all of that and be prepared to tell them quite clearly that what they’re telling you is not true. You don’t slap their face and call them liars, but you have to tell them, "No, we have different information, that is not correct and we know it to be false." They will never admit that it is false. But when they know that you know, it changes the dynamic. And we don’t know, because we don’t know what happened in that in Helsinki, but I doubt that Trump did that.
TH: Some congressional Democrats have talked about subpoenaing the translator from that closed-door meeting and questioning her on what actually happened. Is that something you would support?
JEM: I don’t think we should do that. I think we should count on people like Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Mattis and the CIA director and the director of national intelligence to insist on having that information and factoring it into the national security process and then encouraging the president and the White House to issue a public statement that summarizes the discussion of what was agreed to. This would be normal practice in a normal government.
TH: You talked about Trump’s fixation with the "deep state." You described these people not as some cabal but as professionals doing their best uphold the constitution. Are they winning?
JEM: I think they are gaining ground. My sense is that the Helsinki mess has galvanized a wider swath of U.S. government professionals — to include the Congress by the way — and jolted them. Why would it jolt them? Complicated as all of this is, there is a relatively simple way to describe the impression left: We’ve been attacked and the president has sided with the enemy. That’s something I’m sure Trump would dispute, but that’s the way people understood it. And I think that has galvanized more people in the professional government world to say, "Look, it’s on us to make this government work." That is not a widespread thing yet, but it’s gaining some traction.
TH: You raised the specter of so-called hybrid warfare, of Putin sending his "little green men" into the Baltics. If NATO were to deem something Putin did as calling for implementing Article 5, the alliance’s mutual-defense pact, would you be confident that Trump would go along with it?
JEM: I think so. Perhaps under pressure, but I think there will be enough people in the government who would say the United States as the godfather of NATO cannot be the first country to breach commitment to Article 5.
The broader question would be, as you need a unanimous NATO vote to get Article 5, whether you would get that full support across 29 different countries. This is why Putin could be tempted to try it. His intelligence analysts may be evaluating sentiment within NATO, because the thing that would most damage the alliance, in effect render it neutered, would be the failure to coalesce on an Article 5 request. And the way Putin could make that difficult would be with an ambiguous intervention. That’s why I said little green men.
TH: You also said a really interesting thing — that if Trump only has one term, Europe can wait out the U.S., but that if Trump gets re-elected, it’s going to be a whole different ballgame. What do you think would happen to the trans-Atlantic bridge if we’ve got eight years of this president?
JEM: Well, my, my premise was that Trump is re-elected and continues to behave as he has behaved. There is a great level of dismay in Europe on the one hand among traditional Atlanticists, and on the other hand a certain degree of comfort and sustenance that the European right takes in Trump’s approach. In a way he’s a model for them.
So if that whole syndrome were to continue through a second Trump term, I think the forces in Europe arguing that Europe has to take care of itself would grow. This could be a good thing or a bad thing. Good in that an independent, strong Europe that shares values most of us treasure would not be a bad thing. On the other hand, what would the character of that Europe be, given some of the trends we see there? I’ve heard people who have worked on Europe a long time say something very controversial, which is that if all of these trends were to continue and catch fire, we could end up with a kind of authoritarian Europe.
TH: Last question: Are you considering a second career as a professional magician?
JEM: I have a career now as a kind of semi-professional magician. Magic has given me a lot of joy during my strenuous times in government. It kept me sane because I could fall asleep at night eschewing Ambien and thinking instead about how to solve the latest card trick I was working on.
By Tobin Harshaw, Bloomberg