President Donald Trump’s nominee to become director of national intelligence assured senators on Tuesday that he’d be an apolitical and independent spymaster with full control over the U.S. intelligence agencies.
Former Sen. Dan Coats tried to placate the worries of his onetime colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee who said they were worried by the appearance of Trump’s early attempts to sideline the job before Coats was confirmed.
“I’m reassured with regard to your position,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. “I am not reassured with regard to the process these [orders] have been going through.”
Trump raised eyebrows in the national security world by ordering changes to the National Security Council, inside the White House staff. He added his chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, to what had in past been considered a non-political committee. And he made other changes viewed as hostile to the DNI and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s top uniformed military officer.
Not long after, news organizations reported that Trump was considering bringing in a friend, financier Stephen Feinberg, to do a “review” of the intelligence community.
Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins condemned the notion of someone coming in from the outside to take an oversight role beyond that of the DNI and the president’s existing National Intelligence Council.
“This is a textbook definition of waste and duplication,” she said.
The White House has since said it would revise its goals for the National Security Council and Trump has cast doubt on whether he’d actually order the review to be undertaken by Feinberg. Coats told the committee on Tuesday that the administration has assured him he’ll have the full authority and independence of his predecessors.
“I have full confidence that’s the way it’ll turn out,” Coats said.
Trump’s relationship with the intelligence services has been rocky since before his inauguration. He blasted what he called leaks of classified information that have appeared in news reports linking his presidential campaign with Russia’s intelligence services. And he has also gone back and forth about whether he accepts the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia meddled in last year’s presidential election.
Coats told senators Russia “definitely” tried to influence the presidential race, but echoed the spy agencies’ careful agnosticism by adding, “to what extent they were successful, I don’t think we know.”
Coats also said Russia continues to run the same playbook in political races taking place today in Europe, including France and Germany, and he suggested there need to be “consequences.” Trump’s predecessor President Barack Obama ejected some Russian diplomats from the U.S. and imposed some sanctions in retaliation for the Russian meddling, but Coats’ remarks suggested he supports even more action.
“Russia’s assertiveness in global affairs is something I view with grave concern,” he said.
As a former senator and former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Coats got a genial reception and his confirmation appears likely. But Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford and Maine’s independent Sen. Angus King both warned Coats that once he is in his new job, he can’t always be the nice guy from Indiana.
“I’m not sure likability and affability are the qualities I want in this position,” King said. “I want somebody who’s crusty and tough and mean.”