US intelligence chief Dan Coats downplays 'awkward' reply to upcoming Trump-Putin summit in Washington

Key Points
  • Dan Coats downplayed an 'awkward' exchange earlier this week that suggested he was uncomfortable with a planned summit in Washington between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
  • "My admittedly awkward response was in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticize the actions of the President," Coats said. 
Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 13, 2018.
Aaron P. Bernstein | Reuters

U.S. intelligence chief Dan Coats apologized on Saturday for his seemingly uncomfortable public reaction to news that President Donald Trump was planning a second face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, blaming the press for 'mischaracterizing' his response.

At the Aspen Forum earlier this week, Coats told an audience that he was unaware what Trump and Putin discussed at last week's summit in Helsinki. At that very moment, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced via Twitter that the president had begun laying the groundwork to invite his Russian counterpart to the White House in the fall.

Coats' real-time reaction to the news drew a laugh from the crowd, and reverberated across social media and network news channels. "Say that again?" he asked at the time. 

"Okay," he said after a pause. "That's gonna be special." 

However, Coats issued a statement on Saturday that acknowledged his response was "awkward," but was not intended to disrespect Trump — who has come under withering bipartisan criticism for remarks he made in Helsinki, as well as confused messaging in its aftermath.

“Some press coverage has mischaracterized my intentions in responding to breaking news presented to me during a live interview. My admittedly awkward response was in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticize the actions of the President.

"I and the entire intel community are committed to providing the best possible intelligence to inform and support President Trump’s ongoing efforts to prevent Russian meddling in our upcoming elections, to build strong relationships internationally in order to maintain peace, denuclearize dangerous regimes and protect our nation and our allies," Coats added.

Coats told the Aspen summit that he was unaware of what was discussed between the two leaders, who met privately in a one-on-one meeting in Finland. The DNI said he would have opposed that arrangement, which left Trump without an official stenographer or aides in the room.

"If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted, I would have suggested a different way, but that's not my role," Coats said this week. "It is what it is."

--CNBC's Kevin Brueninger contributed to this report.