Donald Trump

‘Say that again?’ Trump invites Putin to US, startling his own national intelligence director

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was told of the plan onstage, responding ‘Did I hear that? … OK. That is going to be special’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 6:25am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 7:52am

US President Donald Trump has invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Washington later this year, the White House announced on Thursday – news that caught Trump’s own intelligence director by surprise and left him visibly startled.

Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Trump asked his national security adviser John Bolton to extend the invitation to Putin for a “working level” dialogue between the two leaders.

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Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats was informed of the announcement by MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell during an onstage interview at the Aspen Security Form in Colorado.

“Say that again?” Coats responded, prompting laughter from the crowd. “Did I hear that? … OK. That is going to be special.”

The invitation comes as the White House has faced a tumultuous week in the aftermath of Trump’s controversial summit with Putin in Helsinki.

Trump was roundly criticised by Democrats and Republicans in Washington for siding with the Kremlin over the judgments of US intelligence on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. It took the president several attempts to walk back his comments, amplifying the fallout from his joint appearance with Putin.

Trump was nonetheless unfazed by the backlash, deeming the summit as a “great success” in a tweet earlier on Thursday while saying he looked forward to a second meeting with Putin.

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“The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media,” Trump wrote.

“I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed, including stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear … proliferation, cyberattacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace, North Korea and more. There are many answers, some easy and some hard, to these problems … but they can ALL be solved!”

Coats admitted on Thursday that he still doesn’t know what was said in the US president’s one-on-one meeting with Putin in Helsinki.

Coats, who is charged with overseeing the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies, also said that if he had been asked, he would have advised Trump against meeting Putin alone, with just interpreters.

“That’s not my role. That’s not my job. It is what it is,” Coats said in a verbal shrug.

“I don’t know what happened in that meeting.”

Coats said he was just doing his job when he quickly issued a statement Monday after the president appeared to give credence to Russia’s denial of election interference. In that statement, Coats restated the US intelligence assessment about Russian meddling and Moscow’s “ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”

“I just felt, at this point in time, that what we had assessed and re-assessed, and reassessed … still stands and that it was important to take that stand on behalf of the intelligence community and behalf of the American people,” Coats said.

Earlier this week, Coats took the unusual step of issuing a public statement countering Trump’s suggestion in Helsinki that Moscow was not responsible for meddling in the 2016 election.

Speaking at the security forum on Thursday, Coats stood by his decision to contradict the president. “I was just doing my job,” he said.

“As I expressed to the president on my third visit to the Oval Office as his adviser, I said: ‘Mr President, there will be times I have to bring news to you that you don’t want to hear. But know that it will to the best extent be unvarnished, non-politicised, and the best our incredible intelligence community can produce.’”

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Coats went on to describe Russia as the most aggressive state actor attempting to interfere in US affairs. He also warned of the need to be “ever-vigilant” and “relentless.”

Coats continued: “And by the way, the former director of the KGB is the one leading their nation. I think that anybody that thinks Vladimir Putin doesn’t have his stamp on everything that happens in Russian is misinformed.

“It is very clear that virtually nothing happens there of any significance that Vladimir Putin doesn’t know about or hasn’t ordered.”

Ignoring the warnings of intelligence leaders, Trump has continued to lavish praise on Putin and has emphasised the need to improve US-Russia relations. It has remained unclear, however, what the president is seeking to accomplish from his negotiations with his Russian counterpart.

Before their joint press conference in Helsinki, Trump and Putin met behind closed doors for two hours with only their interpreters present. Little is known about what was discussed, prompting Democrats on Capitol Hill to demand that Trump’s national security team testify before Congress.

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The controversy escalated on Wednesday, when Sanders told reporters Trump was entertaining a proposal from Putin that would allow special counsel Robert Mueller’s team to interrogate the 12 Russian military intelligence officials it indicted last week if, in exchange, the US allowed the Russian government to interrogate certain Americans, including the former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul.

Faced with yet another firestorm, the White House was later forced to undertake another course correction and on Thursday rejected the proposal in a public statement.

Additional reporting by Associated Press