The departure of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats is a serious loss for President Donald Trump, even if the president is unwilling to acknowledge it. With Coats goes one of the most experienced, independent voices in an increasingly sycophantic cabinet where the churn has reached dysfunctional levels.
To understand the significance of this loss, and the danger in Trump’s tendency to appoint inexperienced loyalists to key positions, it helps to know the history of Coats’ particular role. Until the 9/11 attacks, the job of coordinating national intelligence efforts fell to the head of the CIA. But the 9/11 Commission later identified major failures of intelligence regarding the possibility of attacks by foreign terrorists.
A bipartisan group of senators created the post of director of national intelligence to lead U.S. intelligence efforts. Thereafter, the CIA would report its activities to the director, who would report directly to the president and be responsible for the president’s top-secret daily briefing.
The most valuable aspect of the DNI is the ability to provide the president with unvarnished assessments rooted in spin-free facts, broad collaboration and deep experience. The person in that role cannot worry about how the information will be received. The director is not there to mollify, or placate, or protect tender sensibilities. He or she must be apolitical, driven by the need to give the president the best and most complete information and potential course of action, able to speak candidly to what is working and what is failing.
These, sadly, are not qualities valued by our current president. Coats was among a rapidly dwindling number of Cabinet members unafraid to clash with Trump if it meant providing needed information, however unwelcome.
But there’s more to Coats’ departure than this. It is yet another signal of a far deeper problem in the Trump administration. At this moment, the secretaries of Homeland Security and Labor are both acting, as is the budget director and the head of the Small Business Administration. Trump is on his sixth communications director, his third chief of staff, his fourth national security adviser and his fourth secretary of defense.
Any business knows how disruptive the loss of even one or two high-level performers can be to the bottom line. Continuity, a unified sense of purpose, attention to short- and long-range goals all suffer when new bosses are constantly coming and going.
So it is at the White House, where Trump runs through Cabinet heads like a butcher goes through aprons. He dirties them, then discards them. Some resign, others are publicly humiliated and forced out. Whether they were four-star generals like Jim Mattis or John Kelly; heads of global corporations like Rex Tillerson; or grifters like former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who left under an ethical cloud, all were subject to the whims of a president who consistently belittles and degrades those who either contradict him or fail to bend to his will.
Trump’s Cabinet members are, in fact, not Cabinet heads in the traditional sense. In Trump’s view, they are hired hands, there to do his bidding, and gone if they fail to please him.
That has given Trump the highest turnover in his administration in modern history, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution. Contributing to the turmoil is his stated preference for “acting” Cabinet members, who do not go through even the nominal vetting of a Senate confirmation. Mick Mulvaney, who has been Trump’s chief of staff since late 2018, has yet to be given the simple dignity of being named permanent chief of staff. He remains “acting.”
On Friday, Trump’s pick to replace Coats, Texas Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe, pulled out just days after reporting showed he had lied about his accomplishments and was far short on experience. In selecting him, Trump had said he expected him to “rein in” spy agencies that he believes have “run amok,” a serious distortion of the DNI’s role.
It is easy to see why people of integrity, with experience and a reputation they have worked hard to build, would think twice about taking a position in the Trump administration. That is unfortunate, because there may never have been a president who needs such individuals more.