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.
Several officials accepted and then canceled at the last minute. They included acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, who stayed in Washington to testify Thursday to a House panel about the situation at the U.S. border.
The Trump administration has portrayed developments at the U.S.-Mexican border as a top national security threat, but the topic was barely raised at Aspen.
McAleenan may have wished he was enjoying Aspen's cool conditions instead of facing heated questions from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, who grilled him about the treatment of migrants in U.S. detention facilities. "We're doing our level best," McAleenan told the lawmakers.
Some administration officials did attend, though. The most senior was Sigal Mandelker, the undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence. She sparred civilly on Friday with Wendy Sherman, a former State Department undersecretary who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal that Trump abandoned. Amy Hess, executive assistant director of the FBI's criminal, cyber response and services branch, also spoke on Saturday.
Among others in attendance included Philip Davidson, head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and Robert Ashley, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. John Rood, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, also spoke on Saturday.
But there was, among participants, a distinct feeling of being let down. Officials may have stayed away out of fear for hurting their careers: Coats remains in his job, but has faced speculation for months that Trump wants him gone, in part because of his remarks a year ago.
The absences were also a reminder of how many officials occupy key posts in the Trump administration on an "acting" basis.
Some conservatives complained they were invited only to provide token opposition. Other potential invitees were told to stay away because administration officials felt the 2018 conference was too anti-Trump, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified.
"There has long been an insular phenomenon in foreign policy circles where a few Washington types go to conferences to speak to a few more Washington types," Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany said by email, describing a larger issue. "The latest trend is to shrink the circle even more by having Washington types discuss issues with just one side of the political aisle."
While Trump and most of his team didn't show up, the president was on everyone's mind. As panelists discussed a resurgent Russia's implications for European security, Trump continued to rage against four congresswomen of color. And as the sun rose in a cloudless sky on Friday in the Roaring Fork Valley, Trump unloaded on New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman -- who spoke at the forum as recently as 2018 -- whom he called "the Chin" and "a weak and pathetic sort of guy."
The political leanings of the audience were clear. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright got a standing ovation when she declared that Trump is "dividing our country and dehumanizing those with whom he disagrees."
And jokes about Robert Mueller's Russia report were frequent, days before the former special counsel is scheduled to testify to lawmakers about his investigation.
"Why is the president unfailingly uncritical of Vladimir Putin and yet incessantly critical of the Democratic leaders?" Burns asked on a panel with former Acting Central Intelligence Agency director John McLaughlin.
"Well isn't that the $64,000 question," McLaughlin cracked. "And if I knew it, my name would probably be Robert Mueller."
That theme reached its apex when Susan Rice, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, appeared alongside NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who passed along Trump's Putin invitation to Coats a year ago while the pair were on stage, eliciting the "that's going to be special" response.
Rice had sharp words for the president, yet offered a succinct response when an audience member asked what should be done about the group that seemed very removed from Aspen this year -- the 63 million Americans who cast their vote for Trump in 2016.
"You respect them," Rice said. "They're fellow Americans who are entitled to their opinions."
(Alyza Sebenius reported from Washington and Wadhams from Aspen)
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