WASHINGTON — The nation’s top intelligence official played down on Saturday his seemingly astonished reaction this week to the news that President Trump planned to invite President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to Washington.
“My admittedly awkward response was in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticize the actions of the president,” the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, said in a statement.
Mr. Coats appeared genuinely surprised on Thursday when he learned of the president’s intention to welcome Mr. Putin to the White House during a national security conference in Aspen, Colo. Upon hearing the news, he turned to the televised event’s moderator, Andrea Mitchell of NBC, asking, “Say that again?”
“O.K.,” he added, drawing the word out. “That is going to be special.”
In his statement, Mr. Coats also laid blame on the news media. “Some press coverage has mischaracterized my intentions in responding to breaking news presented to me during a live interview,” he said.
Diplomats and career officials have scrambled to understand what exactly transpired between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin during their private meeting on Monday in Helsinki, Finland, and Mr. Coats had seemed taken aback by the prospect of another one-on-one encounter. He said he planned to warn the president of the dangers of such a meeting — something he did not walk back in his statement.
“If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted, I would have suggested a different way,” Mr. Coats said on Thursday during the conference. “But that’s not my role; that’s not my job. So, it is what it is.”
Since the Helsinki summit meeting, Mr. Coats has stepped in to publicly defend the conclusion by intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, openly contradicting Mr. Trump and his extraordinary comments on Monday in which the president challenged that assessment while standing next to Mr. Putin. Mr. Coats’s reaction on Thursday underscored the growing divide between the president and his intelligence officials in their approach to Russia policy.
That rift has prompted speculation in Washington that Mr. Coats could step down or be fired.