American’s top intelligence official has apologised for appearing to scoff at the news that Donald Trump had invited Vladimir Putin to Washington, amid reported fury and “uproar” within the White House.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was live on stage at a security forum in Colorado last week, when he was told by a presenter the White House had just announced Mr Trump had invited Mr Putin to visit in the autumn.
“Say that again. Did I hear you?,” Mr Coats asked his interviewer, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
As Mr Coats looked surprised, Ms Mitchell repeated the information to him, and he responded: “Okay. That’s going to be special.”
Mr Coats’ reaction at the Aspen Security Forum last Thursday quickly went viral, and the White House was said to have been angered by it, coming as it did during a series of controversies and walk-backs over Mr Trump’s summit with Mr Putin in Helsinki last week.
The Washington Post said officials in the White House were in “uproar” over Mr Coats’s comments. “Coats has gone rogue,” said one senior White House official told the newspaper.
Over the weekend, Mr Coats, 75, a former Republican senator from Indiana, issued a statement saying he had meant no disrespect to Mr Trump.
“Some press coverage has mischaracterised my intentions in responding to breaking news presented to me during a live interview,” Mr Coats said. “My admittedly awkward response was in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticise the actions of the president.”
Mr Coats had already been under scrutiny after unwittingly finding himself at the centre of controversy during Mr Trump visit to Finland and a press conference during which the US president appeared unwilling to challenge Mr Putin over Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election.
Asked whether he believed Russia had interfered, Mr Trump said: “All I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia.”
He added: “I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Mr Coats issued a statement the same day which said: “The role of the Intelligence community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the president and policymakers.
“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
As fury among Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill grew over what was widely seen as Mr Trump’s undermining of his own intelligence officials, he told reporters he had “misspoke” in Helsinki.
“In a key sentence in my remarks I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’,” he said. “The sentence should have been: ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia’. Sort of a double negative.”
Embellishing his written notes, Mr Trump added: “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. It could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”
During his interview with NBC, Mr Coats said he was unaware of what transpired in the private meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Putin in Helsinki, and restated his belief Russia continued to pose a threat to the American electoral system.
“Basically, they are the ones that are trying to undermine our basic values and divide with our allies,” Mr Coats said. “They are the ones who are trying to wreak havoc over our election process.”
The Associated Press said Mr Coats, who oversees the US’s seven intelligence agencies, also said that if he had been asked, he would have advised Mr Trump against meeting Mr Putin alone, with just interpreters.
“That’s not my role,” he said. “That’s not my job. It is what it is.”