If this breaking news story from today’s Washington Post sounds familiar, it should. A little over two weeks ago, the Post reported that sources inside and outside the Trump administration claimed that Donald Trump had asked director of national intelligence Dan Coats and CIA director Mike Pompeo to publicly state that the probes into Russian interference had nothing to do with him. Today, sources now say that Trump also asked in the same meeting for the two men to “intervene” with then-FBI director James Comey to get him to back down on the probe:
The nation’s top intelligence official told associates in March that President Trump asked him if he could intervene with then-FBI Director James B. Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe, according to officials.
On March 22, less than a week after being confirmed by the Senate, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats attended a briefing at the White House together with officials from several government agencies. As the briefing was wrapping up, Trump asked everyone to leave the room except for Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
The president then started complaining about the FBI investigation and Comey’s handling of it, said officials familiar with the account Coats gave to associates. Two days earlier, Comey had confirmed in a congressional hearing that the bureau was probing whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 race.
For anyone who has a historical sense of the relationship between the FBI and the CIA, this is … rather humorous. It may not be quite like asking the Hatfields to check in with the McCoys to see if they could take it easy on the revenuers, but it’s not that far off either. For most of their existence, the two organizations were more likely to investigate each other than to cooperate on a request like this. If Trump was serious about this suggestion, it seems more a demonstration of naïveté than undue pressure.
In any event, nothing came of the request anyway, even if one trusts the sources involved. Coats made the obvious analysis of the situation and decided that hitting up Comey to take it down a notch would be “inappropriate,” which put an end to the issue. After that meeting, it does not appear that the topic got raised again, which makes this look like an eruption of frustration rather than a coldly planned strategy. Besides, Trump had the authority to order Comey to back down, so Coats couldn’t have taken this too seriously. The timing of this meeting to Comey’s firing makes it less interesting than it seems, too; it took Trump almost two more months to pull the plug on Comey. If that was the proximate cause for Comey’s firing, it would have taken place much earlier, especially with Trump’s less-than-notable impulse control.
For Coats’ part, he denies having been pressured to do anything at all:
Brian P. Hale, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), declined to comment on whether Trump asked Coats to intervene with Comey regarding the Flynn investigation. Hale said in a statement: “Director Coats does not discuss his private conversations with the President. However, he has never felt pressured by the President or anyone else in the Administration to influence any intelligence matters or ongoing investigations.”
The original story actually sounds worse than this one. Checking with subordinates to see how to get another subordinate on board with a policy direction is hardly unusual. Asking subordinates to make public statements without factual support seems a little more problematic. With Comey’s testimony looking like less of a bombshell and more of an inside-baseball event, this looks like even more of a sideshow.
Update: NSA chief Mike Rogers made it about as clear as possible, and Coats concurred:
“In the three-plus years that I have been director of the national security agency, I have never been directed to do anything I believe to be illegal, immoral, unethical or inappropriate and to the best of my recollection during that same period of service I do not recall ever feeling pressured to do so,” NSA Director Mike Rogers told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Dan Coats, who oversees the nation’s intelligence apparatus, echoed those comments. “I have never felt pressured to interfere or intervene in shaping intelligence in any way,” he said.