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Former Sen. Dan Coats dishes on Supreme Court, Ukraine, Trump

The 78-year-old establishment Republican had some blunt assessments on Ukraine, Trump and Supreme Court confirmation politics

Dan Coats, then director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testifies during a Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing on "Worldwide Threats" in 2018.
Dan Coats, then director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testifies during a Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing on "Worldwide Threats" in 2018. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Dan Coats took on many different roles in his four decades in national and international politics, and all of them seem to be colliding at once as Russia invades Ukraine, as Europe and former President Donald Trump respond, and the Senate starts a historic Supreme Court confirmation process.

He was a senator from Indiana, a member of the Intelligence Committee, an ambassador to Germany, a director of national intelligence under Trump and a so-called “sherpa” who guided two Supreme Court nominees around the Senate.

The 78-year-old establishment Republican had some blunt assessments on those issues in a phone interview, as the nation and the world move into a new future and midterm election season.

On whether someone like West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III would buck the party and not vote to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Joe Biden’s pick for the Supreme Court, who would not change the court’s 6-3 conservative advantage: “I mean, I see no reason why he wouldn’t vote for her, because this is not going to be a game-changer.”

On Trump’s praise of Russian leader Vladimir Putin as savvy in the lead-up to the invasion: “It was a shock to me. I mean, you’re president of the United States, not some new congressman or somebody on media, cable news or something like that.”

On Putin launching the invasion: “This is the real Putin. … I think now the world has seen what I’ve always thought he was.”

On Germany radically changing its policies in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine: “This is an extraordinary step. … They were always sort of hiding behind their past.”

And on the future of the Republican Party: “I think the big issue before 2024, is it going to be the Trump Party or the Republican Party?”

Supreme Court politics

The White House in 2005 named Coats to the volunteer job to help guide a high court nominee through the unfamiliar and treacherous terrain of the Senate confirmation process, with the term “sherpa” relating to the Tibetans who play a similar role for climbers of Mount Everest in the Himalayas.

Coats played that role first for the doomed nomination of Harriet Miers, who withdrew her nomination after some visits with senators, and then for Justice Samuel A. Alito, who was confirmed 58-42.

Coats called that time working on behalf of President George W. Bush’s nominees to the Supreme Court a battle, but “one of the more interesting and enjoyable things I’ve done in my career.”

He said a slip of the tongue or mistake by a nominee could potentially turn around a confirmation — especially when a senator might try to “trap” them on positions. “All of that takes, in my opinion, a major effort at preparing the nominee for walking into a situation where it’s a whole different climate,” Coats said.

Coats said that Alito told him that his life as an appellate judge didn’t include people with television cameras asking him for comments: “He even said, ‘I went to a family reunion and half the people didn’t know who I was.’” Coats added that the media culture on the confirmation process was “just a whole new world for these people.”

Former Alabama Sen. Doug Jones has that sherpa role for Biden’s pick of Jackson, who is now going to private meetings with senators ahead of confirmation hearings the week of March 21 before Judiciary Committee and Senate floor votes in the following weeks.

The confirmation path is a bit different now that the Senate rules have been changed and the Democratic caucus can confirm Jackson without the need for any Republican votes. But Coats said the size of the confirmation fight still has more to do with whether the pick will swing the ideological balance of the court.

Jackson filling the seat left by Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s retirement at the end of the term in late June would not do so.

“If it’s a game-changer, that’s one thing, but if it’s not, it’s an easier situation,” Coats said. “Everybody’s, I think, basically like, ‘OK, this is gonna stay 6-3.’”

German turnaround

Coats called Germany’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine “a huge turnaround for Germany,” particularly because of the traditional positions of the political parties there and the historic stance of the country after World War II and previous rejections of NATO’s defense spending targets of 2 percent of national output.

“They were always sort of hiding behind their past. ‘No, we can’t be too militant because, you know, look what happened before and we don’t want to get into that again,’” Coats said. “They were kind of shielding themselves from having to pay the 2 percent and, I mean, from getting too involved and so forth. This was stunning.”

Coats said he always felt that NATO is not going to be strong enough, no matter how many other nations join, unless Germany with its strong economy and geographic positions were “all in on this thing.”

He said the invasion was “a wake-up call” not just for Germany but for Europe because it is a “ruthless” attack on the whole country of Ukraine, and countries like Romania, Poland and the Baltic republics could be next.

“I think for democracies around the world who have taken democracy for granted, they’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we’re not as secure as we think we should be,” Coats said. “Look, does this embolden China to take over Taiwan? Who knows where this leads to? So I think that is a huge shift in how Russia now is going to be evaluated.”

Putin criticism

Coats, who says he learned a lot of things about Putin when he was director of national intelligence during the Trump administration, says what changed in Europe was what Putin revealed about his character.

“I think the world had seen what I’ve always thought he was,” Coats said. “This is the real Putin. He’s been exposed. And he’s been exposed as someone that is not afraid to say, ‘We’re looking at our nukes and getting them ready, and maybe you’ll be surprised,’ and doing all this sort of thing.”

Coats has a long history of criticizing Putin, and in 2014 he was one of a half-dozen members of Congress whom Putin banned from traveling to Russia because of Coats’ push to punish the country over Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.

Coats at the time even borrowed a tradition from comedian David Letterman, a fellow Hoosier, in offering up a top 10 list of things he would miss because of the ban. No. 5 was: “I won’t be able to counsel Duma members on how to say no to a President.”

Coats reportedly clashed with Trump in part over dealings with Russia, and they had been at odds publicly before announcing he was stepping down in July 2019. Coats at one point said that he would have advised Trump not to meet privately with Putin at a summit in Helsinki.

Trump praised Putin’s initial moves that preceded the Ukraine attack, calling them “genius” and adding, “How smart is that?”

Coats called it concerning. “I’m speechless on this, how anybody could think that could be said,” Coats said.

And Coats agreed that Trump still being the de facto Republican presidential nominee in 2024 feels like a very different party than that of Coats, or fellow Hoosiers such as Mike Pence, who as vice president did not go along with Trump’s plan to override the counting of electoral votes, or another former vice president, Dan Quayle, who served under President George H.W. Bush. Quayle advised Pence that he didn’t have the power to do what Trump asked.

“I think the big issue before 2024, is it going to be the Trump Party or the Republican Party?” Coats said.

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