You’ve got to hand it to Donald Trump: there’s nothing like leaving dumbfounded on stage the man supposed to be the country’s Director of National Intelligence. I’m referring of course to the latest twist to the Helsinki summit and its aftermath, insofar as it involves Dan Coats. During a session with Andrea Mitchell at a national security conference in Aspen, Colorado, Coats got the breaking news right along with everyone else in the world that Vladimir Putin is being invited to the White House sometime this fall.
Sure, Coats offered an expression of mock surprise on hearing the White House’s tweet. Maybe that look is what The New York Times, for instance, was referring to when it said Coats “expressed surprise” and “appeared genuinely astonished.” But in non-verbal terms, that was the least of Coats’s actual emotional response to the Twitter announcement.
First, Coats’s mock surprise already contained a hint of more than mere surprise (as noteworthy as surprise is in this case). When a person’s mouth drops open while simultaneously pulling wider, fear is as much a part of the equation as surprise. Coats diplomatically surrendered to laughter and a series of big smiles that began with replying: “Say that again.” But Coats’s first, camouflaging look of mock surprise already contained within it the seeds of Coats’s actual, more enduring and substantive reaction to having Trump invite into the White House the man who metaphorically speaking has been busy burglarizing it.
A playful version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream was, after all, just the start of Coats’s emoting. “Okay. That’s going to be special,” Coats added, his mouth pulled slightly wide in unadorned fear after saying “okay” —though feeling exactly the opposite.
Then Mitchell pressed the point by mentioning that Trump and Putin were alone for over two hours in Helsinki. Coats gulped at that idea, and again his mouth pulled wide in fear. “How do you have any idea what happened in that meeting?” was Mitchell’s follow-up. In replying, “Well, you’re right. I don’t know,” Coats now brought anger into play with a look of eyes flashing wide open (a sign of fear, anger and, yes, surprise). And it was anger that Coats most felt by the end of this particular exchange with Mitchell. “So, um, it is what it is,” the Director of National Intelligence concluded, those conciliatory words offset by the way Coats’s eyes had narrowed and his lips had grown taut.
You could say Coats graduated to anger in recognizing that being so left out of the loop is, in effect, a measure of Trump’s disrespect for, and humiliation of, all or nearly all of the people who work for him in this administration. Coats no doubt resents Trump’s behavior, as much as Trump will surely punish Coats for honesty, independence and patriotism instead of unquestioned loyalty to him.
The bigger picture here is that Trump relishes indulging in surprises that leave much of the universe dumbfounded. The E.U. is America’s leading “foe,” NATO is “obsolete,” and the press is supposedly the true “enemy of the people.” Putin and his idol, Joseph Stalin, couldn’t say it better. As emotions, surprise and fear are fellow travelers. Many of the facial expressions that reveal surprise also reveal fear, which makes sense because human beings don’t generally welcome surprises. Something new can be threatening, and certainly it is in the case of Trump. What’s next? Who knows—certainly not Coats. Why stop with inviting Putin the arch-burglar into The White House? Forget about the G-7. Why shouldn’t Trump convene a gathering of the world’s greatest dictators instead? Here’s a suggestion: he can dub this new group the D-7 and thereby champion the rise of strongmen everywhere.