McMaster Fires Controversial Staffer From National Security Council Post

Ezra Cohen-Watnick's ouster continues National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster's purge of nationalistic viewpoints from the NSC.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has removed an ally of his predecessor from the National Security Council, the White House said Wednesday. 

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, 31, senior director for intelligence programs at the NSC, was hired by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser. Flynn was fired in February after it was revealed he discussed Russia sanctions with that country’s ambassador to the U.S. prior to President Donald Trump’s inauguration, then lied about it.

Cohen-Watnick’s ouster marks a victory for McMaster in his ongoing battle with members of the president’s inner circle. McMaster had reportedly tried to remove Cohen-Watnick in March, but was blocked from doing so by Trump after top advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner pressed to keep him on staff. (McMaster did, however, succeed in ousting Bannon from the NSC, as well as Flynn’s former deputy, K.T. McFarland.) 

“General McMaster appreciates the good work accomplished in the NSC’s Intelligence directorate under Ezra Cohen’s leadership,” a White House official said in a statement Wednesday. “He has determined that, at this time, a different set of experiences is best-suited to carrying that work forward. General McMaster is confident that Ezra will make many further significant contributions to national security in another position in the administration.”

Cohen-Watnick one of several NSC staffers McMaster has fired in recent days. Earlier Tuesday, The Atlantic reported the sacking of Rich Higgins, the NSC strategic planning director, after he penned a controversial memo claiming globalists, the “deep state,” Islamists and others are trying to derail Trump’s agenda. Last week, McMaster removed Derek Harvey, a Middle East adviser and holdover from Flynn’s tenure. 

The moves suggest McMaster is succeeding in steering the NSC away from the nationalistic viewpoints of Bannon and Flynn and toward more traditional conservative perspectives. 

Cohen-Watnick is best known to the public for his role in providing intelligence documents to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House intelligence committee. He was one of two White House officials who gave Nunes documents that suggested members of Trump’s transition were inadvertently swept up in surveillance operations. The House Ethics Committee later announced it would investigate Nunes for making unauthorized disclosures of classified information, prompting him to step down from his committee’s investigation into whether Trump’s team colluded with Russian officials to influence the 2016 election.

According to Politico, career CIA officials expressed reservations about Cohen-Watnick to McMaster, and pressed for his removal. 

As The Atlantic’s Rosie Gray detailed last month, Cohen-Watnick largely was a mystery in the Trump administration:

Unlike other White House officials who have become public figures in their own right, Cohen-Watnick never speaks for himself publicly, leaving others to fill the void. Yet he hardly comes into sharper focus when you talk to co-workers, friends, and former colleagues. Ask around about Ezra Cohen-Watnick, and people get defensive. Some profess not to know him, or ask why anyone would want to write about him. Others simply refuse to discuss him.

Prior to joining the White House, Cohen-Watnick served at the Defense Intelligence Agency, and was accepted into the agency’s Defense Clandestine Service in 2012. That’s where he met Flynn, who reportedly shared skepticism of the CIA’s intelligence operations. Cohen-Watnick later followed Flynn to Trump’s transition team and the administration.

Members of the national security community reportedly were surprised that a relatively young, inexperienced staffer had been appointed to such an important NSC role.

“No one at his level could have possibly had the experience to be made senior director for intelligence programs—no way, no how,” Daniel Benjamin, an NSC staffer under President Bill Clinton, told Newsweek