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Dan Coats, nominee to be top intelligence official, says Russia tried to meddle in election

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 28, 2017, 5:07 p.m.

In this Jan. 23, 2017, file photo, National Intelligence Director nominee and former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats waits for the start of a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
In this Jan. 23, 2017, file photo, National Intelligence Director nominee and former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats waits for the start of a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – Dan Coats, President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. intelligence community, said at his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday that he believes Russia attempted to meddle in last year’s presidential race, putting him potentially at odds with the White House.

Russia “definitely did try to influence the campaign,” said Coats, who was nominated to head the Office of the Director of National intelligence, the nation’s top intelligence job.

The assertion suggests Coats supports U.S. intelligence conclusions about Russia’s role that Trump has repeatedly questioned or derided. If he is confirmed, Coats is likely to play a key role in the squabble over Russia that has dogged the early Trump presidency.

“Russia has a long history of propaganda and trying to influence various nations’ cultures and elections,” Coats said. “It’s happening. They seem to have stepped up their game.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is weighing Coats’ nomination, is also conducting an investigation into Russia’s election-related activities, including any contacts between its agents and Trump’s associates or campaign aides. The FBI is conducting a similar inquiry.

Trump has denied any improper contacts. He dismissed his national security adviser on Feb. 13 for not being truthful about his phone calls with the Russian ambassador.

But Trump has downplayed a U.S. intelligence report, released Jan. 6, that said hackers backed by Russian intelligence penetrated Democratic Party computers and leaked the contents in an effort to harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign and bolster Trump’s chances of winning the White House.

Democrats pressed Coats on Tuesday to assure them he would support the committee’s investigation into Russia’s role in the campaign.

“We are also looking into whether any individuals associated with U.S. political campaigns inappropriately engaged with officials of the Russian government – and we will seek to determine what the intentions of these interactions were,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the committee’s ranking Democrat.

Coats, 73, former senator from Indiana and U.S. ambassador to Germany, promised to fully support the investigation. He said he had not yet received a classified briefing on the subject.

“It’s a very key issue we understand fully what happened and how it happened,” he said.

Democrats said they were irked by Trump’s decision after his inauguration to exclude the director of national intelligence from a Cabinet-level committee in the National Security Council. Trump put his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, on the committee.

Coats said the intelligence director was left off a presidential memorandum outlining the changes because Trump’s aides had mistakenly relied on documents published before the Office of the Director of National Intelligence began operations in 2005.

He said Trump had assured him he would be part of the principals committee and that he was expected to attend its meetings.

The former U.S. senator, who stepped down in January, is respected by members of both parties and is expected to win easy confirmation.

Like several others in Trump’s Cabinet, he differs with the president on a host of issues.

While in the Senate, Coats was a harsh critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and urged President Barack Obama to severely punish Moscow for annexing Crimea in 2014 and intervening in Ukraine. The Kremlin banned him and several other congressional critics from visiting Russia several years ago.

Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for Putin and suggested the White House might ease economic sanctions on Moscow imposed by the Obama administration. In recent weeks, however, several Cabinet members said the new administration would not lift sanctions until Russia withdraws from Ukraine.

In confirmed, Coats said, he will focus on several key threats to U.S. security, including foreign cyberspying, China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, North Korea’s nuclear weapons development and “radical Islamic terrorism.”