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Senate Considers Trump's Choice For National Intelligence Director


Dan Coats is President Trump's choice to be the next director of national intelligence, the nation's top intelligence job. He's a former Republican senator from Indiana. He served for years on the Senate intelligence committee, the very group that was tasked with grilling him today.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is back from that hearing. And, Mary Louise, I use the word grilling, but I get the sense that's not the case when I hear the most popular question is, are you too nice for the job?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: (Laughter) That was one of the harder questions he faced. This was grilling but wearing kid gloves, I think it is a safe way to say it because they were grilling one of their own. They're grilling somebody they know who sat on that committee until last month - until January when he stepped down as senator.

This question of whether he, Dan Coats, is too nice to be the director of national intelligence came up over and over. Let me let you listen in to one place where it came up. This is Senator James Lankford. He's Oklahoma Republican, and here he is questioning Coats.


JAMES LANKFORD: You're one of the nicest people I've ever met.

DAN COATS: Thank you.

LANKFORD: And that is to your credit not only to your faith and your family but the people you've served for a long time. But I really want the DNI to be able to be tough when it requires to be tough.

KELLY: Yeah, Audie, Senator Lankford went on and said, we'll deal with nice when we run into each other in the hallway. We can have a water break. But can you stand up to the president? And here is what Coats, nominee for director of national intelligence, replied.


COATS: Senator, I absolutely understand that this role demands someone who can stand up to the pressures that will be placed upon him - political pressures. We have 17 agencies. It's - not everybody's going to agree in terms of the way to go forward, and there needs to be a director who can assert that authority.

KELLY: And it was interesting to sit there and listen as this came up over and over on both sides of the aisle and from Angus King, the Independent senator from Maine. He said, I don't want somebody nice as DNI. I want somebody crusty and mean who is going to stand up to the president.

And I think that's the question that they were really getting at - this idea that a lot of political advisers, like Steve Bannon, have the president's ear on matters of national security. The senators want to make sure that the chief intelligence adviser is also going to have the president's ear and that intelligence should not be politicized.

CORNISH: Right because we've been hearing so much about the National Security Council, who's on it, what role they'll play. What did Coats have to say about what role he expects to play?

KELLY: This was maybe the other area where he faced the most questions and specifically about this executive order that came out of the Trump White House that appeared to downgrade the role of the director of national intelligence along with the chairman of Joint Chiefs.

What Coats said was, don't worry. I have asked the president. He has told me directly, assured me over and over I am welcomed. I am needed. I am expected to be part of the principals committee - so the senior-most people who have voices on the National Security Council. He was pressed on that.

Coats was pressed on that, saying, but have you actually asked the president to change the language to formally write you onto this? And this matters, Audie. I mean if this feels like insider Washington bureaucracy, it matters because of this issue of, should intelligence and military, the senior-most advisers in the U.S. government have the president's ear on matters of national security? And that's what's at stake here.

CORNISH: Another issue - Russia. Did the senator have anything to say about the investigations underway into possible ties between the Trump administration and Russia?

KELLY: He did. He was questioned. The most persistent questioner about Russia was the vice chairman of the committee. This is Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat. And he wanted to know, is the DNI going to help us in our investigation of Russia? Here's how that dialogue unfolded.


MARK WARNER: Do you promise to fully and completely cooperate with the committee's investigation of the Russian election hacking, including by turning over all requested IC cables, intelligence products and other materials to the committee as promptly as possible?

COATS: I think it's our responsibility to provide you access to all that you mentioned.

KELLY: And as that exchange went on, Coats promised, I will hold nothing back from this committee. Senators wanted to have Coats on record saying that because they are leading the investigation on the Hill of what possible ties between Trump and Russia may have been. And they want the DNI to help them and make sure they get access to the officials and papers they need to do their work.

CORNISH: That's national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly reporting on today's confirmation hearing for director of national intelligence nominee Dan Coats. Thanks so much.

KELLY: You are very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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