The national intelligence director has long been one of Trump’s biggest detractors within his own administration.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats may be on his way out of the White House—for real this time. Rumors of Coats’ potential departure were renewed once again Friday, as multiple outlets reported that President Donald Trump is “eager” to remove Coats and is already meeting with his potential successors. “It’s time for a change,” one source told Axiosabout the president’s current thinking. “Dan’s a great guy but the president doesn’t listen to him anymore.”
Sources cited by Axios and CNN say it’s unclear when exactly Trump would make a move to force out Coats, but the president has reportedly been discussing Coats’ ouster for months now, often bringing up the topic unprompted. Coats denied his perhaps imminent departure in a statement to Axios, saying, “I am focused on doing my job, and it is frustrating to repeatedly be asked to respond to anonymous sources and unsubstantiated, often false rumors that undercut the critical work of the Intelligence Community and its relationship with the President. I am proud to lead an IC singularly focused on the vital mission of providing timely and unbiased intelligence to President Trump, Vice President Pence and the national security team in support of our nation’s security.” (A White House official commented to Axios, “We have no personnel announcements at this time.”)
Axios and CNN note that the most likely contender to fill Coats’ shoes is Fred Fleitz, the current president of the Center for Security Policy and a former CIA analyst and chief of staff to national security adviser John Bolton. Fox News reports that Trump spoke with Fleitz about the position back in February and again within the past week. The president has reportedly told people he’s “heard great things” about Fleitz, whose Fox News appearances criticizing Coats for “second-guessing” the president suggest he’s likely to be the sort of “yes man” Trump would want on his team. Also reportedly meeting with Trump about the position is Gen. Joseph Dunford, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, though it’s unclear whether there are any other contenders for the position beyond those two. Coats’ potential exit could also signal a new era for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which the president reportedly considers an “unnecessary bureaucratic layer.” Though Trump cannot get rid of the office entirely, sources cited by Axios say the president is looking to “downsize” the office
Should Coats actually leave the White House soon, his exit will have been a long time coming. The national intelligence director has long been one of the president’s biggest detractors within his own administration, from his insistence that Russia did, in fact, hack the 2016 election—a topic the president would rather avoid—to his belief that North Korea and Trump’s newfound B.F.F. Kim Jong Un are “unlikely” to give up their nuclear weapons. “Say that again. Did I hear you?” Coats asked NBC’s Andrea Mitchell when she broke the news to him onstage in July 2018 that Vladimir Putin was going to the White House. “O.K., that’s going to be special.” The president, who has made no secret of his distrust in the intelligence community, has also been quick to shoot back at his own national intelligence chief. “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” Trump tweeted in January, after Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspell broke with the Trump party line on North Korea, ISIS, and Iran during a congressional hearing.
Speculation of Coats’ White House exit has been churning since his surprise over the impending Putin summit last summer, as senior White House officials commented that the intelligence adviser had “gone rogue.” “That’s a place I don’t want to go to publicly,” Coats said when asked in July 2018 about a possible resignation. “Are there days when you go, ‘ugh, what am I doing?’ Yeah. . . . As long as I have the ability to see the truth and speak the truth, I’m on board.” A new round of firing rumors flared up in February after Coats broke with Trump on North Korea, and in March, reports surfaced that Vice President Mike Pence had to talk Coats out of resigning after Trump announced in December he would withdraw all troops from Syria. Though Trump’s Syria move prompted the resignation of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis—who, along with Coats, was regarded as one of the Trump administration’s few remaining “adults in the room”—Pence reportedly persuaded Coats to stay on with the administration through at least summer 2019. Now, with these new reports surfacing, it seems as though Coats’ exit may be coming right on schedule.