MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears here. By now, you've probably seen that moment when the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats found out during a live conversation with NBC's Andrea Mitchell that President Trump had invited Vladimir Putin to the White House. His reaction to the news - an awkward laugh and exasperated sigh. Coats has since put out a statement, saying his, quote, "admittedly awkward response was in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticize the actions of the president," unquote.
Still, his response has reignited a debate that has flared up over and over again, which is, should Trump administration appointees, particularly those with expertise in areas where the president has very little, stick around to keep offering their perspective? Or should they resign and stop supporting a president who evidently does not seek or follow their advice?
Last week, even Washington Post opinion editors couldn't agree. Editorial page editor Fred Hiatt and deputy editorial page editor and columnist Ruth Marcus came out on different sides, so we asked them to come in and reprise their arguments. I started with Ruth Marcus, and I asked her why she says Dan Coats should resign.
RUTH MARCUS: Because there is no evidence that Trump is constrained in any way by advice he is getting from the supposed grown-ups in the room. The grown-ups in the room are just standing around, mouths agape, thinking, holy cow. And so by their continued presence, they are not fixing anything. They're not stopping very much that I can see. They are simply enabling Trump to do the damage.
And this is a kind of pants-on-fire moment for the country. And a spate of significant resignations might shake us, might shake Congress even out of the situation that we're in, which is to watch this fire and do nothing about it.
MARTIN: Fred Hiatt, you responded with your own column - "Please, Dan Coats. Don't Resign."
FRED HIATT: Right. Well, I start by thinking, you know, Ruth's column is just so dumb.
MARCUS: (Laughter) Fred's my boss. Everybody should understand this relationship very clearly...
HIATT: (Laughter) No. Obviously, you know, I think it's a really hard issue. I thought Ruth's column is very convincing. I disagree for a couple reasons. One is I'm sort of a pessimist, and I think as bad as Helsinki looked, I think it could've been a lot worse. But, you know, when you look at the summit, as far as we know - and, admittedly, there's a lot we don't know about what happened in the two hours they were talking without aides - Trump didn't give Crimea away, didn't sell out the European Union, didn't sell out - you know?
Until that last question and answer, it wasn't terrible. And it's possible I think given the things Trump was saying leading up to the summit about Crimea and Syria and all these other things that it could've been a lot worse if he didn't have advisers like Coats and Pompeo around him. That's the first thing.
And the other thing I would say is I think there's some value in hearing truth from people like Dan Coats at the top. And the fact that Dan Coats came out after the summit and just issued a statement and said - you know what? - yes, the Russians are hacking our system and this really is a serious problem, it's important to the country to hear that. And I'm glad we have a director of national intelligence who will still say that.
MARTIN: Ruth, so - you guys have each had your say. So let me just ask each of you a question. Ruth, why would it be in the best interest of the country for people like Dan Coats to resign?
MARCUS: It's a kind of extreme times call for extreme measures, and we are in the extremist of times, as we wrote. We are at a point where we just need a national wake-up call that this is not OK. I mean, I do think that one argument on Fred's behalf may have been demonstrated...
HIATT: Painful as it is (laughter)...
MARCUS: Painful as that is for me to acknowledge is actually what we saw Dan Coats do in Aspen. We have a new model, a kind of third way of Cabinet secretaries gone rogue, right? There are the sort of sycophantic caucus led by Vice President Pence and other Cabinet secretaries who are completely with the program. But maybe we have a kind of third way - set of cabinet secretaries and other significant government officials who will just say what they think, kind of roll their eyes and force the president - if he's willing to do it, and we have no indication that he's willing to actually do it - into firing them, if he dares.
MARTIN: Fred Hiatt, that's - the question I have to you is since there is no evidence that the president is actually listening to the people who have expertise in these areas, why should they stay there and, in a sense, give cover?
HIATT: Right. You know, I think Ruth makes a good argument there.
HIATT: But I feel like, OK, Dan Coats resigns. And then what? He appoints somebody else, probably somebody worse, and life goes on. And what have we gained from that? I mean, I do see that from the point of view of the people who are in government, you know, Ruth's column was also you need to save your honor. And I completely sympathize with that. But in the case of national security, if they think they can make the world a little bit safer, there's some value there.
MARTIN: That is Fred Hiatt. He is editorial page editor and columnist at The Washington Post. Ruth Marcus is deputy editorial page editor and columnist at The Washington Post. They were both kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Fred Hiatt, Ruth Marcus, thank you both so much for speaking with us.
MARCUS: Thank you. It was fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.