Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Thursday that he wishes President Donald Trump hadn’t met alone with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Finland.
Coats said Thursday he did not know what happened in a meeting between Trump and Putin in Helsinki, Finland. The only other people present were two translators.
“If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted, I would have suggested a different way. But that’s not my role, that’s not my job,” Coats said.
The president mentioned Coats by name in a Monday news conference with Putin, when he was asked by a reporter whether he believed U.S. intelligence or the Russian leader. Trump said that Coats and other intelligence officials had told him Russia was responsible, but said that he didn’t see any reason why the country would be. Trump issued a clarification the following day, saying he didn’t see how Russia wouldn’t be involved in election meddling.
The U.S. needs to call Russia out for meddling in the 2016 presidential election to make sure it doesn’t happen again, Coats said Thursday.
“We need to guarantee to the American people” that their vote matters and is secure, Coats said at the Aspen Security Forum. “It’s the essence of democracy.”
Coats’ remarks drew a sharp contrast with a conflicting series of statements by President Donald Trump in recent days about Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Despite conflicting statements from the president this week on whether Russia remains a threat, the intelligence community still sees it that way, said Coats, who last week described cyber threats to U.S. national security as “blinking red.” FBI Director Christopher Wray also said at a separate Aspen forum this week that the country “continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.”
The Department of Homeland Security doesn’t have evidence that Russia’s hacking attempts ahead of the 2018 midterms are as widespread as they were in 2016, Coats said, but “we cannot rest on that assumption.”
“It’s just one click of the keyboard that could change this narrative, so we have to be ever-vigilant on this,” he said.
Other highlights of Coats’ remarks at the forum:
On Vladimir Putin’s influence: “It is very clear that virtually nothing happens [in Russia]… that Vladimir Putin doesn’t know about or hasn’t ordered. I think we’re pretty sure about that.”
On Trump’s meeting with a Russian ambassador last year: Coats said he did not know Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak was visiting the Oval Office last May. It’s “probably not the best thing to do,” Coats said, adding that he doesn’t think such a meeting has happened since.
On a cyber 9/11: Coats said he’s most worried about a cyber attack on the scale of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Some examples of a potential large-scale cyber attack, he said, include a hack that shuts down Wall Street for a week, or an attack on an electric grid that leaves a whole region without power. “Those are the things you have to try to anticipate — what are the capabilities our adversaries have if they wanted to use them? These are the things strategically we have to look for,” he said.
On North Korea: More than a month after Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un, and North Korea’s pledge to denuclearize, there is no firm timeline or plan in place. North Korea has deceived previous administrations about its denuclearization efforts before, Coats said, adding “I still have a hard time trusting adversaries” and “I’m not surprised North Koreans are trying to hide something.” But U.S. intelligence now is more advanced, he added. “We know and have the capability to know what they’re doing and they’re going to do it right,” Coats said, adding that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the right person to handle the negotiations.
On Putin’s trip to Washington: The White House announced during Coats’ speech that Trump was extending an invitation to Putin to visit the White House. “Say that again?” Coats asked moderator Andrea Mitchell when she told him the breaking news. She repeated it. “Okay,” Coats said. “That’s gonna be special.”