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Coats' Departure Reinforces Trump's Disconnect With Intelligence Officials

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The last of President Trump's original national security team is stepping down. Dan Coats is resigning as director of national intelligence effective August 15. Coats has repeatedly clashed with President Trump during his tenure, often publicly, including this last year. When President Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, reporters asked whether President Trump believed U.S. intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this - I don't see any reason why it would be.

MARTIN: Coats went on to reiterate intelligence findings that contradicted the president's statements. Coats' predecessor, General James Clapper, said he should stand on principle and quit. Clapper served as DNI during the Obama administration, and he joins us on the line now. General Clapper, thanks for being with us.

JAMES CLAPPER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So last year, you said that if you had been in Dan Coats' position in that moment, as the head of the ODNI, that you would resign in a heartbeat, your words. But you've also said if Coats were to be fired, it would be a terrible message for the intelligence community. How do you view his departure now?

CLAPPER: Well, I think it's a huge loss for - not only the intelligence community, but for the nation as well. I mean, it's not a big surprise. I think it's, you know, been media buzz about this for some time. And he will have been in office almost 2 1/2 years, which on a Trump administration scale is an eon.

MARTIN: But you say it'll be a loss. At the same time, you had said that he should have resigned in protest.

CLAPPER: Well, there's always that issue of what - you know, the dilemma you are in in that position is do I resign in protest, or do I stay in an attempt to protect the administration. And I think in balance Dan did the right thing by sticking around as long as he could.

MARTIN: As I noted, Coats was the only survivor from Trump's original national security team except for the CIA director Mike Pompeo, who is now secretary of state. What does that turnover, especially in the national security team, indicate to you?

CLAPPER: Well, it's, I think, perhaps emblematic of the difficulty of serving in this administration. And it doesn't bode well for the national security establishment because, at least classically, I think stability has always been a better characteristic. You know, these turnovers have huge impact on the workforce that serve below these officials. So that's not maybe real visible, but that is a huge factor. The turnover creates a lot of turbulence.

MARTIN: Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe of Texas is the president's choice to take over as DNI. He's on the House Intelligence Committee. And he was a federal prosecutor, but he doesn't have any direct experience in any U.S. intelligence agency. What do you make of him?

CLAPPER: Well, the law, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which was signed into law in 2004, does stipulate that the DNI has to be someone with, quote, "extensive national security experience." And so it will be up to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will be the primary - the lead for Mr. Ratcliffe's confirmation, to determine whether he has, quote, "extensive national security experience" or not.

MARTIN: Last week, he got a lot of praise from Republicans for how he backed the president during the Mueller testimony. Democrats are saying that he's just too political for this job. Do you think that criticism is founded?

CLAPPER: Well, I don't know Mr. Ratcliffe. And I - in fact, I didn't know about him until he kind of attacked special counsel Mueller during the hearings. And I think there is - it is better if the - there is some independence and autonomy by a DNI, much like the director of the FBI. There needs to be some separation and objectivity. So obviously, I think there's concern if you're going to appoint someone whose first qualification is to be an accolade for the president.

The important written intelligence is telling truth to power, which Dan Coats did at obviously some risk. And I think he served with great distinction. And again, I think it's a big loss.

MARTIN: Just briefly, Coats was a strong advocate for stronger election security. As we looked at 2020, does he leave the ODNI in a position to address that?

CLAPPER: Well, I think, you know, like everyone else, you build on your predecessors' efforts. And I think Dan has done some things, as he outlined in his letter of resignation, that does put the DNI institutionally and the intelligence community institutionally in a better position.

MARTIN: Former Director of National Intelligence, General James Clapper. General, thank you. We appreciate your time this morning.

CLAPPER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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