This is why intel leaders wouldn't talk to the Senate today

Key Points
  • Both Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and NSA Director Michael Rogers testified before a Senate panel on Wednesday.
  • The men declined to detail their conversations with President Donald Trump.
  • One official told CNBC that there are two possible situations that could explain Coats and Rogers' silence.
Senators press intelligence officials over Russia probe
Senators press intelligence officials over Russia probe

U.S. intelligence officials testifying before the Senate on Wednesday declined to answer repeated questions by Intelligence Committee members about media reports of their interactions with President Donald Trump.

At issue are reports that Trump asked them personally to in some way intervene in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. But neither Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats nor NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers would say anything about what Trump told them.

Asked by Maine independent Sen. Angus King why he would not answer a direct question about the alleged Trump conversation, Rogers said simply, "I feel it is inappropriate, Senator."

King, frustrated, fired back: "What you feel isn't relevant, Admiral."

Similarly, Coats said: "I do not believe it is appropriate for me" to comment on what the president said. Pressed by King for the legal basis for his refusal, Coats said: "I'm not sure I have a legal basis. But I am more than willing to sit before this committee during its investigative process in a closed session and answer your questions."

So why wouldn't the intel leaders talk to the Senate Intelligence committee today?

A senior government official explained to CNBC Wednesday that the officials were in a tricky situation.

There were two logical possibilities, the official said: first, that the media reports are true and Trump did say something that could be construed as inappropriate. The second is that the media reports are simply false.

Making it clear that he would not indicate which scenario was the real one, the official said that in both cases the intelligence officials had reason to stay quiet today.

If the allegations about Trump are true, he said: "The officials testifying today felt that it was not appropriate in an open setting to be discussing confidential discussions with the president, even though executive privilege was not asserted." That indicates, as Coats suggested, that the officials might reply with more candor in a closed, or classified, Senate session.

If the allegations about Trump are not true, the official said the intelligence leaders would still have had a reason to be quiet: "There are a number of times, especially in the intelligence area where officials do not want to deny something even though it didn't occur because they don't want to be in a position of setting a precedent," the official said. That is, officials worry if they deny an accusation this time, they may be forced to deny others in the future, robbing them of the ability to simply not comment in the future.

"I think everybody understands it's an uncomfortable situation," the senior government official said. "But both the officials testifying today, trying to do a good job, and the Senators trying to do a good job will sometimes find that they are at cross purposes."

All this raises the question of what comes next. It is possible that the Senate committee will simply issue a subpoena to demand the answers. In that case, the White House would have to make a decision: Should Trump assert executive privilege over the conversations, or let his intelligence community testify openly about their conversations with him?

For today, at least, the White House didn't have to make that decision. But it could be coming soon.