Being in a room where news is made and being reported at the same time is an interesting experience. You witness firsthand “who or what is making news,” and the environment in which it occurs. It is an unfiltered experience. Such was the experience at the Aspen Security Forum, where some of the most notable national security professionals have gathered over the past decade to share what they know and think with other like-minded professionals. Making news is nothing new for this most unique of assemblies but in this most recent gathering much has been made of the onstage interview of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. A lot has been made of the “YouTube moment” of Mitchell telling Coats the news about President Trump’s invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit the U.S. in the fall, but I want to help set the scene for you about how it all happened.
In a packed room with probably 400 or so people, you have a small bank of videocameras in the back of the room at the ready to record what is happening. Along the back wall, you have a small technical crew managing the cameras, lights and sound as well as support staff scattered around the room ready to mic up the various presenters so everything is captured. Also sprinkled around the room are reporters from just about every renowned news outlet and then a few you may have never heard of before. Each of them either has their phone and computer out to tweet out a “quotable quote” or to write their news story. If they don’t have a screen in front of them, they have the classic reporter’s notebook at the ready to take it all down for reference later. This is in every sense of word for them and the rest of the attendees a smorgasbord of delicious, Grade-A “on-the-record” content served in front of you on a gilded platter. Here at Aspen, the newsmakers come to you and are all front-and-center before you.
As far as the presenters go, there really is no holding room for them. For the really big-name speakers who have security details to move them about, they either huddle behind a moveable privacy wall outside of the catering kitchen door or gather just at the foot of the stage before being called up to take their seats.
If you were in the room, like I fortunately was, that’s where you saw DNI Coats smiling and casually chatting with those around him as his security detail kept their eyes on everyone to keep their boss safe. For a person who has oversight over all of America’s intelligence apparatuses, the DNI looked every bit relaxed and comfortable and, given the news of the week, that’s saying something! In contrast to his tranquil demeanor, just a few feet away you see another 5-6 staffers huddled around NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, including makeup artists primping and prepping her for the stage. As she reviewed her notes and talked to those adjusting her hair and makeup, she looked all business. This was in every sense her arena and she was going to be more than ready for it.
So after brief intros, they both took the stage and, being the veteran reporter she is, Mitchell started her query of the DNI reflecting all of the news of the week. Their back-and-forth was what I will call “Aspen-conversational.” It was polite, professional and pressing at various points but was in no way rude or combative. Mitchell had to work Coats over a time or two to try to get him to respond to her queries about how he and the intelligence community saw things in the world and how the president saw them quite differently. But at no times was Coats flip, antagonistic or disrespectful to his boss or how he saw things. He was every bit the Mister Rogers persona described by his former colleagues in Congress.
More than halfway through the interview, something started to happen off-stage that would dramatically change the cordial interview. The phones of the attendees all seemed to quietly buzz at the same time, which prompted people to start looking at them.
At the table I was seated at, the eyes of the person to my left went wide and his jaw dropped in shock. I no sooner observed his reaction when up popped on my laptop screen a breaking news alert telling me about the president’s invite to Putin. My own jaw dropped in shock an,d for those at the table who were being far more attentive to the two presenters on the stage, we started passing phones around to each other to share the news. As this is happening I looked over at the off-stage table, where members of Mitchell’s NBC support team were all starting to quickly whisper to each other and scribbling notes back and forth.
Almost at the same time, my colleague to my right leans over to me as I lean over toward her and we both say, pointing to the stage, “They don’t know.” We both look at each other wide-eyed at the “news bomb” that has just exploded in the room, recognizing that things on the stage are about to get real interesting, real fast.
As we both continue taking notes, an NBC staffer trying to make herself as small as possible quietly crept onto the stage to hand Andrea Mitchell a note. All of us at the table looked at each other with almost sheepish smiles, knowing the news that is in that note and how an already interesting conversation with the DNI is about to get even more interesting.
Mitchell takes the note as the hunched-over staffer tries as valiantly as possible to stay off camera and out of audience view. As she quietly reads the note, the DNI is continuing with his response to a question that all of us in the room have effectively forgotten about because we know something bigger is going to happen right in front of us.
For probably the first and only time in DNI history, the majority of the seated audience (and country and world) knows more about what is happening in the world, than the DNI does! Looking over the handed note and offering a very quick (and subtle) glance toward the table of NBC staffers for assurance and to make sure the revelation she is about to share is indeed true, Mitchell begins to reveal to the DNI and the assembled audience that she has some breaking news to share.
Seated next to her and before the live TV cameras and assembled reporters and attendees, the DNI is probably thinking, “Oh boy, what now?” At this point, all I can think of is the voiceover from the often hilarious yet cringeworthy moments captured by the Southwest Airlines commercials, “Wanna get away?” However she delivers this news, I can only imagine the awful feeling of being completely blindsided in a live TV and very public interview.
And so she begins to tell him what she knows, and the moment she says the word “Twitter” Coats visibly trembles and smirks. He knows that any pronouncement that follows that word is going to make his life more interesting than he would otherwise like. As Mitchell continues to share the news, the audience – especially those who had not checked their phones during the actual interview – starts to show its audible shock.
Making sure he’s heard her right, Coats leans over and asks her to repeat what she said. Whether or not he heard her correctly the first time, it’s a proven debate tactic to ask a questioner to repeat their question so you can try to think of a response. In the minuscule seconds that buys him, Coats absorbs the enormity of the social media pronouncement and offers what I can only call the most reasonable of responses after being caught off-guard by his boss.
Smiling, shaking his head and gently swaying back into his seat, he appears to give a collective sigh and says, “OK; that’s going to be special.” The audience roared with laughter.
That response (and the audience reaction) has drawn the ire of the White House and other supporters of the president, but the truth is I don’t know what else people expected him to say. All of us at different points in our lives have been blindsided by things our bosses, professional colleagues, friends and even family have done. But when that has happened, 99 percent of us have not been seated on a public stage, or before live TV cameras and an all-consuming media immortalizing our reactions.
Much can be made about the lack of coordination and communication between the president and the White House communications team and how they work with the departments, agencies and offices that support them. Regardless of who that administration may be, when they are all in sync – the choir is in tune and singing from the same sheet of music – it is perfection. When they’re not, the noise and confusion by that dissonance lands like a lead balloon. That’s Communications 101.
Which is why I am more than ready to give the DNI a pass for being “off message” on harmonizing along with the president when he invites one of our country’s greatest adversaries for a fall hoedown inside the Beltway. It’s pretty hard to sing along when the conductor changes the music, rhythm, speed and instruments on you as you perform on one of the world’s most public national security stages. In this scenario, it was Coats who was left to perform solo when the president excluded him from the day’s musical selection.
History will eventually judge Coats’ tenure as DNI on many things, but for those of us who witnessed his interview at Aspen, he generated and garnered overwhelming sympathy from us. He already had overwhelming deep respect in taking on one of the toughest jobs in government and for one of the world’s toughest bosses. But to be put in an absolutely “no-win” situation in responding to something he knew nothing about (or had any inkling was going to happen), how could you not feel empathy for the man?
Which is why have a simple question for Coats’ critics: “Given the exact same circumstances, what should he have said?”
I’m sure for some they will state the response should have been unflinching praise for the invitation. I guess that’s certainly doable and understandable, but when you are the premier guardian and conductor of the nation’s intelligence services and your boss invites your greatest adversaries over for a visit and doesn’t tell you about it beforehand, I think “OK; that’s going to be special” is a more than reasonable response.
Best of all, that statement has more than a ring of truth to it – because as the Trump administration has shown us, they know how to make any and every occasion “special.”
That’s something else history will record and remember.
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