WASHINGTON – Dan Coats is taking the “intelligence” out of “national intelligence director.”
Testifying with Trump administration colleagues Wednesday to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Coats read aloud from his written testimony about “herculean” efforts made by the National Security Agency.
“The NSA has made her-cyur-ROO-lian – this is hard for me to say,” said President Trump’s national intelligence director, a former Republican senator from Indiana. “They have made extensive efforts. Her-CYOO-lian, I think, is the, uh – “
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a fellow witness, intervened. “Her-cyoo-LEE-an,” he coached.
“Say that again?” Coats requested.
“Her-cyoo-LEE-an,” Rosenstein repeated
Coats tried anew. “HERR-clee-un. HERR-clee-un,” he said.
“We know what you mean,” one of the senators reassured him.
Here’s what’s really herculean: being a Trump aide and trying not to implicate the boss even though it is patently obvious that he attempted to restrict the FBI’s Russia probe. For three hours on Wednesday, four top Trump administration officials fielded sharp questions from senators of both parties but adamantly refused to say what Trump had done. Their attempts to protect Trump looked all the more foolish an hour after the hearing when the committee released testimony scheduled to be given Thursday by James Comey, the FBI director Trump fired, laying out in detail Trump’s meddling in the Russia probe.
The juxtaposition between Comey’s gripping account and the Trump officials’ refusal to answer questions did no credit to the embattled president. Comey’s testimony, confirming numerous press accounts, stated that Trump told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Comey confirmed that Trump asked him to drop the FBI probe of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and to “lift the cloud” of the Russia probe. The situation was so awkward that Comey didn’t want to be alone with the president. Comey had told the president at the time that he wasn’t a target of the probe, but Trump fired him when he didn’t go public exonerating Trump.
Against this powerful account, Coats, Rosenstein, NSA chief Michael Rogers and acting FBI director Andrew McCabe offered hours of nothing. A couple of them asserted that they didn’t “feel” pressured, but nobody would say what Trump had asked them. It wasn’t because the information was classified; there is no serious basis for that. It wasn’t because Trump had asserted executive privilege; Rogers said he asked the White House counsel about that but “I didn’t get a definitive answer.” Nor was it because the special prosecutor had asked them not to talk; he hadn’t.
“What is the legal basis for your refusal to testify to this committee?” asked Sen. Angus King, the normally mild-mannered independent from Maine.
“I’m not sure I have a legal basis,” admitted Coats.
Rogers spent much of the hearing glowering at the table in front of him. His exchange with King was even worse.
King: “Why are you not answering?”
Rogers: “Because I feel it is inappropriate, Senator.”
King: “What you feel isn’t relevant, Admiral. … Is it an invocation of executive privilege? If there is, then let’s know about it. If there isn’t, answer the questions.”
Rogers: “I stand by the comments that I’ve made. I’m not interested in repeating myself, Sir. And I don’t mean that in a contentious way.”
King: “Well, I do mean it in a contentious way.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asked whether they had ever been asked “to issue a statement that you knew to be false.”
Rogers again said “I’ve never been directed” to do something “I felt to be inappropriate.”
That wasn’t the question. “Have you ever been asked to say something that isn’t true?” Rubio repeated.
“I stand by my previous statement, Sir,” Rogers replied.
“I do likewise,” Coats echoed.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., tried a different approach: Did anybody have notes on Trump’s interactions regarding the Russia probe?
“I don’t take any notes,” Coats replied.
Why is this not surprising?
There were relatively few partisan splits, although the committee chairman, Richard Burr, R-N.C., did a bit of mansplaining to rookie Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., silencing her when she tried to pin Rosenstein down. There was widespread consensus that the officials were shielding Trump, and clumsily. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., noted the absurdity of Wednesday’s Washington Post having a full account, with names and dates, of how Trump tried to get Coats to intervene with Comey to back off the Flynn probe. “And yet here in a public hearing before the American people, we can’t talk about what was described in detail in this morning’s Washington Post,” McCain told Coats, calling it “Orwellian.”
At least that’s easier to pronounce than “herculean.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.