ASPEN, Colo. -- Call it the Case of the Vanishing Trump Administration Officials.
That was the mystery that played out at the 2019 Aspen Security Forum, where senior officials, thought leaders and reporters gather annually in one of America's wealthiest ski and sun playgrounds to debate timely matters of national security and foreign policy. The event was established a decade ago to bring Republicans and Democrats together for robust, bipartisan discussions.
But this year's gathering, held July 17-20, was marked chiefly by the absence of any of President Donald Trump's top officials. They either had scheduling conflicts or opted to stay away from an event that became synonymous a year ago with the contortions that top officials must perform in defending Trump's more unpredictable policies.
"We've got very senior people here -- and we're very grateful to them for being here -- but there's no question that we don't have some of the Cabinet level people here that have been here in past years," said Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who now heads the Aspen Strategy Group, which took over running the event in January.
"I hope very much that we can assure the Trump administration next year that they can come and they can present their views and be heard," Burns said.
The absence of administration officials raises the question of whether the U.S. is currently too polarized to even discuss national security, an area decision-making without adequate debate can have devastating consequences.
On the lush green lawns of the Aspen Meadows Resort, attendees even had a name for the phenomenon: the "Coats Factor." That's a reference to the moment a year ago when Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, was caught off guard when told Trump had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington.
"Say that again?" a visibly surprised Coats asked his interviewer. "OK. ... That is going to be special."
The Coats Factor isn't just about Coats. Attendee Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of homeland security at the time, had to backtrack after she said Russia's 2016 election interference efforts weren't designed to favor one candidate or another. And FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein were asked to account for the president's actions, days after the Helsinki summit with Putin.
Perhaps as a result, invitations sent this year to Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and numerous other top administration officials went largely unaccepted, according to organizers.