There’s the added challenge of the White House’s current occupant. “You have a president who lives in his own alternate reality, which is so divorced from the world” that an expert on Russia, China, or North Korea knows, Blair said. Given Trump’s reputation for ignoring or contradicting intelligence assessments, one could conclude it doesn’t matter what the intelligence briefers tell him—he’s likely to go his own way regardless. “If you’re the DNI, or the leadership, you can’t let that be the end state,” Blair said. “You have to try to present the truth as you know it in a way that will make a difference."
One way Coats handled the dynamic was to try hard to stay out of the news. But the biggest headlines he did generate highlighted the gaps between the president and his intelligence community on issues like Russia, North Korea, ISIS, and Iran. The president downplayed Russian election interference; Coats was forceful about just how severe a threat the intelligence community saw in it. The president at various times declared there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea, and that ISIS had been defeated; Coats’s January congressional testimony on worldwide threats flatly contradicted those conclusions, saying it was unlikely North Korea would ever give up its nuclear program and highlighting the continuing threat of the Islamic State. (Just this month, a Pentagon inspector-general report noted that over the spring and early summer, “ISIS carried out assassinations, suicide attacks, abductions, and arson of crops in both Iraq and Syria. In addition, ISIS established “resurgent cells” in Syria and sought to expand its command and control nodes in Iraq.”)
Read: Are all the adults leaving the room?
Coats may not have wanted the attention, but these gaps were noteworthy. Had someone else been giving that testimony—perhaps a Trump stalwart like Republican Representative John Ratcliffe, who Trump briefly tapped to take over Coats’s position—these issues might not have come to light in quite so stark a fashion. Granted, there was already plenty of public reporting on Russian interference, North Korean intransigence, and Islamic State resilience. But it was meaningful to know that, despite the president’s protestations, his own intelligence reinforced what the public reporting showed. And this also underscored the president’s tendency to mislead.
This is why the appointment is so consequential, argues Joshua Geltzer, who was a senior director for counterterrorism on Barack Obama’s National Security Council. “I think at least in these circumstances, the public-facing aspects of the job take on a way higher significance than they normally do,” he told me. He cited Coats’s unusual public statement reiterating the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russian interference after Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, in which the president seemed to lend weight to Putin’s denials of interfering. “That’s not just standing up for an intel judgment, it’s also standing up for your workforce,” Geltzer said.