Coats has also described the experience of briefing the president—how he will frequently interrupt with questions or detours such that the briefers have to keep returning to the central points. Anonymous officials were less charitable in describing the experience to Time magazine recently, saying that Trump displayed “willful ignorance” or reacted with anger to facts he didn’t like. Two of them told Time that they’d been warned not to tell Trump information that contradicted positions he’d taken in public—which would seriously undercut the entire point of intelligence briefings, and offer further evidence of a dangerous disinterest in crafting fact-based policies. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the report for The Atlantic.
David Frum: Subpoena the interpreter
Trump reacted angrily to one piece of this month’s intelligence threat briefing to Congress in particular, alleging that officials had underplayed the threat from Iran, when in fact they had not. Coats very clearly singled out Iran for its support of terrorism and its ballistic-missile inventory, which he called the largest in the Middle East. Iran was in fact one of the “big four” threats Coats detailed, also including Russia, China, and North Korea.
Coats and other officials did, however, describe assessments at odds with some of Trump’s statements. For North Korea, it was the fact of even calling the country a threat, when the president has tweeted that “there is no longer a Nuclear threat from North Korea.” For Iran, it was the judgment delivered by the CIA director that the regime was technically in compliance with the nuclear deal Trump condemned and then withdrew from—though this wasn’t a direct contradiction, since Trump’s problem from the beginning was the ”decaying and rotten” pact itself, wholly apart from the question of whether Iran was complying. On ISIS, it was the warning that the group still commands thousands of fighters and is returning to its guerrilla roots, though Trump at one point declared ISIS “defeated” in Syria before shifting his story.
On Russia, it was the contention that Moscow had not only interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections, but had also tried to meddle in the 2018 midterms.
Coats is not the only official to contradict Trump on factual assessments—it can be difficult not to, given that the president so frequently contradicts himself. Administration officials have offered different accounts than the president on a variety of issues, from Syria to China, and Trump has even differed from himself from one speech or tweet to another, or even within the same press conference. Some officials, like National Security Adviser John Bolton, opt to deny the contradictions.
Coats doesn’t typically do that, but he does not play up the conflict, and he can appear visibly uncomfortable revealing it. He doesn’t finesse the assessments either. “Nobody would ever call Dan Coats slick,” says Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee who served with Coats and questioned him at the January threats hearing. “I’m not being disparaging. I think he gives his answers, makes his assessments, not in a calculating way.” Coats does not offer what Warner called an “alternative reality” to fit the president’s priorities; in his most recent threat briefing, for example, he made no mention of what Trump has characterized as a threat from migrants coming across the southern border.