WASHINGTON — Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats is leaving his post after 2 1/2 years of in-fighting with President Trump, who still says Russia didn’t interfere in the nation’s 2016 election.

Coats, a former U.S. senator from Indiana, was widely respected in Congress and throughout the intelligence community. But he and Trump fought bitterly over a broad range of critical intelligence and national security policies — especially the president’s gullible belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin played no role in Moscow’s disinformation cyberwar in the last national election.

Trump is replacing Coats with three-term Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas, a former mayor of a tiny town of about 9,000 people, who is one of the president’s strongest supporters in the House, but has no background in foreign intelligence.

Ratcliffe impressed Trump when he came to the president’s defense at a House investigative hearing last week where former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III warned lawmakers that Russia was planning again to interfere in next year’s 2020 presidential elections.

“You wrote 180 pages ... about decisions that weren’t reached, about potential crimes that weren’t charged or decided,” Ratcliffe argued — adding that Mueller had violated normal prosecutorial standards and had treated the president unfairly.

Coats, on the other hand, has been one of Trump’s most persistent critics, especially about his overly cozy support of Putin.

In July 2018, at a national security conference in Aspen, Colorado, Coats angered White House officials when he said he would have advised Trump not to agree to a private meeting with Putin at their summit in Helsinki.

The two met privately without any other American officials present, or aides to record their conversation or even take notes on what they may have agreed upon.

Trump has said relatively little about the meeting, with the exception that when he allegedly asked Putin if Russia was behind the disinformation cyberattack, Putin flatly denied his country had anything to do with it. And Trump said he believed him.

“Coats also did not hide his dismay when he learned, in the middle of an interview at [the Aspen conference], that the White House had extended an invitation for Putin to visit Washington,” The Washington Post reported.

“That’s going to be special,” Coats told an audience of several hundred people, who laughed, the Post said.

Coats has been an unreconstructed hawk on Russia over his political career. As a senator, he had called for the Obama administration to punish Russia after it invaded the Ukraine and took over the Crimean Peninsula, eventually annexing it.

There has been no clarion call from Trump for Russia to withdraw its forces from the region. Indeed, during his campaign, he insisted on ABC News that there were no Russian troops in the Ukraine when, in fact, they were there in large numbers.

It was a sad day this past week when Coats was forced out of his position as DNI, as regrets poured in from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff tweeted a message thanking Coats for his service to his country, but had no comment on his replacement.

“He has been a great advocate for men and women of the intelligence community, and a good leader. Most important, he has had the independence and strength to speak truth to power.”

The solution to this breakdown in government, in this case, comes down from the top. Trump’s infatuation with Putin remains a mystery that will not be quickly or easily solved and corrected.

Putting the right people in charge of running key federal agencies requires two critical standards: experience and excellence. In this case, Trump has chosen neither to be the new director of national intelligence.

The standard Trump has chosen is a political one: Who can appeal to my ego and overlook my lack of judgment.

When President Lincoln picked his nominees to run the government and its agencies, he chose people who knew more and had more experience than he did — a team of rivals, as Doris Kearns Goodwin so aptly titled her magnificent book on Lincoln’s Cabinet.

In filling the job of director of national intelligence, Trump has fired the wrong man and hired a replacement who is utterly unqualified for this post.

 

Donald Lambro has been covering Washington

politics for more than 50 years as a reporter, editor and commentator.