Another extraordinary moment: Intel chiefs come to Capitol Hill and contradict their boss

Intelligence chief Dan Coats won't discuss Trump's meetings with Putin, but says he's wrong on North Korea, Iran

By Heather Digby Parton


Published January 30, 2019 10:55AM (EST)

Daniel Coats, director of National Intelligence, testifies on Worldwide Threats during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 29, 2019. (Getty/Saul Loeb)
Daniel Coats, director of National Intelligence, testifies on Worldwide Threats during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 29, 2019. (Getty/Saul Loeb)

If President Trump is innocent of any collusion with the Russian government, you have to wonder how he would act if he were guilty. Despite his defenders' best efforts to imply that he's just too inexperienced or naive to know that his repeated overtures toward Russian President Vladimir Putin create suspicion, at this point it's impossible to believe anyone could be so, well ... dumb. Trump knows perfectly well that he's under intense scrutiny on this issue and he just keeps behaving in ways that make him look as if he has something to hide.

On Monday, the Financial Times reported yet another meeting between Trump and Putin that had not been fully revealed. You'll recall that the two were originally scheduled to meet at the G20 in Argentina in November but the White House canceled the meeting, ostensibly because of the standoff between the Russian and Ukraine navies that was happening at the time. Most observers felt that was a pretty thin excuse. The cancellation was more likely related to the optics of holding meeting in the immediate wake of Michael Cohen's sentencing, which had revealed that plans for a Trump Tower Moscow were being negotiated much longer into the 2016 campaign than anyone knew. It seemed to be one of the rare occasions when Trump listened to his political advisers, who were undoubtedly apoplectic at the thought of another Helsinki at that moment.

As it turned out Trump just couldn't stay away from Putin. We had been told before that they had spoke informally during the Buenos Aires summit but as it turns out, that was a much more substantive and lengthier meeting than before. And once again, there was no staff or American interpreter on hand. According to the Times, all the leaders had attended an event at the 19th-century Teatro Colón, and as they all streamed out of the building at the end of the evening, Donald and Melania Trump sat down at a table for a private chat alone with Putin and his interpreter. They were among the last to leave.

What makes this story particularly interesting, aside from the fact that he did it again, is that the source for the story is a Russian government official who told the Times that the two leaders spoke about "a number of foreign policy issues." Why this Russian official decided to discuss this meeting at this particular moment is unclear. But you can't blame people thinking it might be meant as a message to the president.  (Perhaps Trump's aggressive stance in Venezuela, in direct conflict with Russian interests, isn't going over well?)

It should be absurd to even think such a thing. But that's what happens when the president repeatedly meets with Putin on the sly with no record of their conversations, and behaves in the Russian leader's presence like a fawning fanboy. Even if there's nothing untoward going on, he's giving the Russian government leverage just by acting as if there is.

On Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee took testimony from the leaders of all the intelligence services as they presented their annual "Worldwide Threat Assessment." The list of threats will come as no surprise to most of you. However, Trump would have been brought up short if he ever read it, which he almost assuredly did not. It was pretty much a rebuke of virtually everything he's said and done over the past two years.

For instance, the intelligence community says that North Korea “is unlikely to give up all of its WMD stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities.” This would be in direct contrast to the president who insists that he and Korean dictator Kim Jong-un are "in love" and that North Korea is "no longer a nuclear threat."

The intelligence chiefs also claim that despite the U.S. pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Iranian government is still abiding by it and “is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities.” Trump had called the deal "defective at its core," when he unilaterally pulled out.

The threat report confirms that global warming is contributing to ever increasing “climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans." Trump thinks people should rake the forests to prevent wildfires and bizarrely believes that “the ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now. But now they’re setting records. They’re at a record level." Just this week, we saw this one from the president:

And what about Trump's declaration of victory against ISIS? According to the threat assessment, it was just a tad premature. It reports that the Islamic State “still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria” and around the world, and “will exploit any reduction in counterterrorism pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities."

And needless to say, despite the "very strong" assurance from Trump's good buddy Putin that his government was absolutely not meddling in America's elections, the U.S. intelligence community believes that “Russia’s social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians” as part of an ongoing campaign “to influence US policy, actions, and elections” They made it abundantly clear that Russia had interfered in 2016 and 2018 and they assumed it plans to so again.

As for all those private meetings between Trump and Putin? Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats about the fact that Trump didn't share with anyone what was said in those meetings: "would this put you in a disadvantaged position in terms of understanding Russia’s efforts to advance its agenda against the United States?" Coats replied, "Senator, clearly this is a sensitive issue, and it’s an issue that we ought to talk about this afternoon. I look forward to discussing that in a closed session.”

It's fair to say that this would be the first time such a question was asked about any American president. And it's unbelievable that the director of national intelligence couldn't answer it directly and in public.

But for all that, perhaps the most disturbing assessment in the report was the one which found that American trade policies and “unilateralism” have strained traditional alliances and prompted foreign partners to seek new relationships. The report shows that the world is obviously full of dangers and challenges. But thanks to Trump's reckless, makeshift approach to policy, it looks as though the U.S. will be facing them alone.

And by the way, Trump's No. 1 security threat, the one that may require him to declare a national emergency? The "invasion" at the southern border? It didn't even make the list. Imagine that.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton