Read: The impossible job of speaking truth to Trump
Coats was in a difficult position from the moment he took the job—leading a workforce that holds telling “truth to power” as an ideal while at the same time reporting to a boss whom an ally once accused of creating a “reality-distortion field” around himself. The DNI position itself, which was created after the 9/11 attacks to better coordinate intelligence sharing among different agencies, is one Trump reportedly considered eliminating altogether before appointing Coats. Some experts have called the DNI an ineffective additional layer of bureaucracy, and those in the job have struggled to navigate murky authorities and rival bureaucratic power centers like the head of the CIA.
Indeed, Coats, a lifelong politician and twice-retired senator from Indiana, wasn’t an obvious pick for a position historically held by intelligence professionals. But two former colleagues of his told me in February it was clear he respected the work of intelligence professionals and took seriously his responsibility to present it faithfully to the president. This was no small thing, given that the president had set a hostile tone with the intelligence community before he was even inaugurated, invoking Nazi Germany when excoriating intelligence leaks on Twitter.
Coats’s commitment to the intelligence community’s Russia assessment even helped stoke the first rumors that he might leave, in the summer of 2018. During an onstage interview at the Aspen Security Forum at the time, he expressed shock that Trump planned to invite Putin to Washington, and offered gentle disapproval of Trump’s long, solo-but-for-translators meeting with the Russian leader. White House officials took their frustration to the press, with one telling The Washington Post that the intelligence chief had “gone rogue.” At the time, though, the worry was that Coats might resign, according to the Post. Trump praised him publicly afterward, Coats apologized, and people seemed to move on.
But then, in January 2019, it appeared Coats’s time in office was truly coming to a close. He, alongside other intelligence leaders, delivered congressional testimony on worldwide threats that undercut or contradicted statements Trump had made on issues including Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The president afterward scolded his intelligence leaders on Twitter for being “naive” on Iran in particular. At first, it appeared that incident was quickly smoothed over: After an Oval Office meeting with his intelligence chiefs days later, Trump tweeted about his confidence in the intelligence community and said the media had misrepresented their testimony.
Read: Trump’s top intelligence officials contradict him on Russian meddling
Weeks later, though, reports surfaced that he was still furious with his DNI—and now it wasn’t about Iran; it was about North Korea. Trump has bet big on getting Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons; Coats, in his testimony, said it was unlikely the North would ever do so. Trump reportedly saw this as undermining his position weeks before a planned second summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “I think you have a classic example here where Director Coats is trying to make policy and not inform policy,” the president’s friend Chris Ruddy said on CNN in mid-February. The Washington Post followed up with a report that Trump, according to one adviser, saw Coats as disloyal. The paper pointed out that the anonymous complaints fit a pattern of previous administration departures, serving to put “the offending official on notice that their days are numbered.”