U.S. intelligence chief Coats sidesteps questions on Trump, Russians and Israel

WASHINGTON — Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on Tuesday repeatedly declined to confirm or deny news reports that President Trump reached out directly to him in an effort to undermine an FBI investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Coats said it would be inappropriate for him to reveal the content of his conversations with the president.

“On this topic, as well as other topics, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to characterize discussions and conversations with the president,” Coats, the nation’s top intelligence official, told lawmakers.

The Washington Post, followed by other outlets, had reported the day before that the president reached out to Coats and asked him to publicly deny any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 campaign. The Post said Trump, acting after then FBI Director James Comey revealed there was an investigation into the matter, made the same request of National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers. Both Coats and Rogers refused, believing the request inappropriate, the newspaper said, citing current and former U.S. officials.

Asked whether he knew of the other reported contacts between the president and top intelligence officials, Coats replied: “I am not aware of that.”

The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., pressed Coats on whether a president reaching out in such a manner would be appropriate. “Any political shaping of that presentation or intelligence would not be appropriate,” the former senator replied. “I have made my position clear on that to this administration, and I intend to maintain that position.”

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

And he pledged to cooperate with any congressional committee investigating alleged Russian meddling, as well as with special counsel Robert Mueller.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked Coats whether he had discussed alleged efforts by the president to “stifle or stop the investigation” with Rogers.

After an awkward pause, Coats, clearly uncomfortable, replied: “That is something that would like to withhold, that question, at this particular point in time.”

Coats also sidestepped questions about whether Trump reportedly shared intelligence obtained from an ally — thought to be Israel — improperly during a meeting in the Oval Office with top Russian officials.

Kicking off a curious back and forth, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., asked Coats whether that disclosure was “dangerous” to national security.

“I wasn’t in the room and I don’t know what the president shared. All I have read is public” accounts, Coats said. Heinrich asked whether Coats had only seen news accounts. “I’ve been on travel and I have not discussed this issue with the president,” Coats replied. “I was in Europe and he was in the White House.”

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