Senator Daniel Coats, a Republican from Indiana, speaks to the media in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York (Photographer: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pool via Bloomberg)

Trump Nominates Former Senator Coats as Intelligence Chief

(Bloomberg) -- President-elect Donald Trump nominated former Indiana Senator Dan Coats as U.S. director of national intelligence, giving the retired Republican lawmaker oversight of the spy agencies that have drawn skepticism from Trump.

“Dan has clearly demonstrated the deep subject matter expertise and sound judgment required to lead our intelligence community,” Trump said Saturday in a statement. “He will provide unwavering leadership that the entire intelligence community can respect, and will spearhead my administration’s ceaseless vigilance against those who seek to do us harm.”

Coats, 73, probably would face close questioning by both Republicans and Democrats about how he views the intelligence community’s conclusions that Russia hacked Democratic Party computer systems in order to meddle in the U.S. presidential campaign, which Trump has repeatedly questioned. 

The current director of national intelligence, James Clapper, and other spy chiefs briefed Trump on Friday about the Russian hacking and shortly after released a declassified report on their findings. Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered cyber and disinformation attacks to influence the U.S. presidential campaign and developed “a clear preference” for Trump to win, the report said. 

Trump seemed to slough off the briefing on Saturday, saying on Twitter that only “fools” would think it’s bad to have a good relationship with Russia.

Morale Hurt

When questioned at a Senate hearing on Jan. 5 if Trump’s public criticism is hurting morale among intelligence officers, Clapper said: “I hardly think it helps.” Trump said Friday in a statement that the intelligence briefing on the election hacks was constructive and that he has “tremendous respect” for intelligence officials’ work.

Trump didn’t comment directly on Putin or Russian interference in the presidential campaign in his statement, but said he’ll seek a plan to “aggressively combat and stop cyberattacks.”

Difference of Opinion?

There could be differences, however, in how Coats and Trump view Russia. During and after his successful presidential campaign, Trump has expressed admiration for Putin as a strong leader and predicted they can work together on issues such as fighting Islamic State terrorists -- a theme he returned to on Saturday.

Coats, meanwhile, was among several U.S. officials who landed on a Kremlin blacklist in 2014, banning them from entry into Russia, for opposing Russia’s seizure of Crimea.

“While I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to go on vacation with my family in Siberia this summer, I am honored to be on this list,” Coats tweeted March 20, 2014. At that time, Coats had co-sponsored a Senate resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea and urging sanctions.

“There are many reasons to love the choice of Dan Coats for DNI, including that he is steely-eyed about the fact that Putin is no friend,” Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska and member of the Senate Judiciary and Armed Services committees, said on Twitter Jan. 5.

Overseeing Agencies

Having served as a senator, ambassador and lobbyist, Coats is a known quantity in Washington. As the DNI, he would oversee coordination of 17 intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, tasked with tracking everything from terrorist operations to foreign military maneuvers.

If confirmed by the Senate, Coats will join a team expected to include retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security adviser, Republican Representative Mike Pompeo as CIA chief and former General James Mattis at the Pentagon.

“If confirmed, I will ensure our national security decision-makers have every piece of information they need to protect the American people from the threats facing our nation,” Coats said. “There is no higher priority than keeping America safe, and I will utilize every tool at my disposal to make that happen.”

Trump also considered Fran Townsend, President George W. Bush’s former homeland security adviser; Admiral Mike Rogers, the current director of the National Security Agency; and former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton.

Combating Islamic State

As a member of the Homeland Security, Appropriations and Intelligence committees, Coats in 2014 laid out what he termed a more effective strategy to combat Islamic State terrorists, calling for having law enforcement working more collaboratively with domestic Muslim communities; pushing Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf allies to cut off financial support for groups that support terrorism; and expanding bombing of Islamic State camps in Syria.

He also has made comments similar to Trump’s about the need for what the president-elect has called “extreme vetting” of people coming into the country from areas where terrorists are active. Coats said the U.S. needs to review its Visa Waiver Program, which lets citizens of about three dozen nations to enter the U.S. for as many as 90 days without getting visas in advance, saying it might have to be eliminated for national security reasons.

“Similar reviews of our refugee and asylum policies are necessary,” he added in a statement on his website.

In March 2015, Coats announced his retirement from the Senate, saying he wouldn’t seek re-election. He served as a congressman and then senator from 1981 to 1999, stepping down because of a term-limits pledge. But he returned to the Senate in 2011 and became a member of the Senate Finance, Select Intelligence and Joint Economic committees. He also served as U.S. ambassador to Germany and worked as a lobbyist for companies such as General Electric Co. and Google.