Coats won't comment on report that Trump asked him to deny evidence of collusion

Washington Post

The nation's top intelligence official declined to comment Tuesday on a report in The Washington Post that President Donald Trump had urged him to deny publicly the existence of any evidence of collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, noting that he is the president's principal intelligence adviser, said, "I have always believed that ... it's not appropriate for me to comment publicly on any of that."

He added, "So on this topic, as well as other topics, I don't feel it's appropriate to characterize discussions with the president."

Coats spoke at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Post reported Monday that Trump made the request of Coats after then-FBI Director James Comey disclosed March 20 that the bureau was investigating potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

Coats declined to speak publicly on the matter, deeming the request inappropriate, current and former U.S. officials said.

Trump, they said, also sought the cooperation of National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers. Like Coats, Rogers declined to make such a public statement, again believing that the request was inappropriate.

Asked by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., whether, hypothetically, it would be appropriate for a president to make such a request, Coats replied, "Any political shaping of ... intelligence would not be appropriate." He said, "I have made my position clear on that to this administration, and I intend to maintain that position."

Reed also asked about another allegation in the Post article, which stated that senior White House officials sounded out top intelligence officials about the possibility of intervening directly with Comey to encourage the FBI to drop its probe of Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser.

"Are you aware of any other contacts, not just yourself personally, but to others in the intelligence community to conduct an activity?" Reed asked Coats.

"I am not aware of that," he replied.

Coats indicated that he would cooperate with the Russia probe being led by special counsel Robert Mueller. Under questioning by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Coats said that if asked, he would provide details of his conversation with Trump to Mueller.

He also said that if he is called before an investigative committee, such as the Senate Intelligence Committee, "I certainly will provide them with what I know and what I don't know." He said the Trump administration has not directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to withhold information from members of Congress conducting oversight.

Separately Tuesday, leading Democratic senators were withholding votes for Trump's nominee to lead the Treasury Department's terrorism and financial crimes division, to protest the administration not producing records related to their probe of the Trump campaign's alleged ties to Russian officials.

Top Senate Banking Committee Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio and top Senate Intelligence Committee Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia complained during a committee confirmation vote for Sigal Mandelker that the administration is being too lackadaisical about producing documents that lawmakers have requested to supplement their probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.

The Wall Street Journal reported this month that the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) would share records with the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of its investigation. Warner and committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., had sent a letter April 26 requesting documents, including alerts of possibly suspect transactions known as "flash notices" and information prepared in relation to terrorism or money laundering cases known as "314(a) requests."

"While the committee has received some documents from Treasury, the information received thus far is insufficient, and we have expressed this concern," Warner said Tuesday, after the vote to recommend Mandelker's nomination to the full Senate. The vote was 16 to 7, with Warner, Brown and several other Democrats voting no - "a step I wouldn't otherwise take," Warner stressed, had the Treasury Department better complied with the request for information.

Coats told lawmakers that he did not have any documents describing his conversation with the president.

Senators also expressed concern about Trump's sharing of classified intelligence on an Islamic State bomb plot with the Russian foreign minister in his visit to the White House this month. Heinrich noted that Coats earlier in the hearing said leaks jeopardize lives. "If the president held any other position, what he said [to the Russians] could be considered the mother of all leaks," he said. He asked Coats, "Was it dangerous for the president to share that information?"

Coats deflected, saying he was not in the room for the discussion. "I've been on travel," he said. "I have not discussed this with the president."

Heinrich replied, "I find that troubling."

Coats also admitted that he "can't specifically describe" the process by which the intelligence community determines what intelligence can be shared with a foreign government. "I'm new to the job. Weeks in," Coats protested. He also said that he "was not aware" of whether Trump had cleared the intelligence for sharing.

The Washington Post's Adam Entous and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.

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