How Trump’s Decision to Overrule His Appointees Is Blowing up in His Face

Well, stab me in the eye with a fork, imagine what I thought when I learned that Ezra Cohen-Watnick was one of the sources that House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes surreptitiously met with at the White House. I knew I remembered the name, and I only had to travel a little more than two weeks into the Wayback Machine to refresh my recollection.

President Donald Trump has overruled a decision by his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, to sideline a key intelligence operative who fell out of favor with some at the Central Intelligence Agency, two sources told POLITICO.

On Friday, McMaster told the National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence programs, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, that he would be moved to another position in the organization.

The conversation followed weeks of pressure from career officials at the CIA who had expressed reservations about the 30-year-old intelligence operative and pushed for his ouster.

But Cohen-Watnick appealed McMaster’s decision to two influential allies with whom he had forged a relationship while working on Trump’s transition team — White House advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. They brought the matter to Trump on Sunday, and the president agreed that Cohen-Watnick should remain as the NSC’s intelligence director, according to two people with knowledge of the episode.

The career professionals at the Central Intelligence Agency seem to have a lot of reservations about Team Trump, and now we can begin to see some of the reasons why. It’s also no coincidence that Devin Nunes shows up in that article about Cohen-Watnick. He’s there to bolster the case that the CIA only went after Michael Flynn and his allies, Robin Townley and Cohen-Watnick, to protect their own turf, rather than because Flynn has been the subject of a counterintelligence investigation since last July.

And, I mean, look, this isn’t just long-time intelligence officers who are grumpy about being criticized. The Washington Post reported that McMaster decided to remove Cohen-Watnick at the request of Trump’s hand-picked CIA director:

McMaster had been told by CIA Director Mike Pompeo that some intelligence officials had problems with Cohen-Watnick and didn’t think he was up to the job, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter. The intelligence director provides White House interface with the intelligence community and is a filter for information to the president.

So, Cohen-Watnick stayed in place because of the intervention of Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, and then he promptly decided to use his position to create a scandal for the White House by inviting the House Intelligence chairman to visit the White House in the dead of night after switching cars and ditching his aides.

And then he let the White House and Nunes lie like hell about it:

Nunes had previously denied this, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had cast scorn on the allegation.

Last week, Nunes went to the White House grounds and reviewed intelligence documents with a source. Though he and his spokesman repeatedly vowed to never reveal any information about his source, he apparently told Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) that the information came from a “whistleblower-type person” and told Bloomberg’s Eli Lake that the source was an intelligence official but not a White House staffer. Nunes also claimed that no one at the White House knew he was there — a claim that would require shocking ineptitude on the part of the Secret Service team that clears all visits to the grounds before guests can enter.

Spicer also mocked the notion that the White House had provided the information — which Nunes then presented to President Trump before even alerting his committee.

“I don’t know what he actually briefed the president on, but I don’t know why he would come up to brief the president on something that we gave him,” Spicer told the press corp last week. “That doesn’t really seem to make a ton of sense.”

Obviously, Spicer didn’t understand the plan. Nunes was given this information, but it was never supposed to be revealed that he got it from Bannon and Kushner’s toy poodle senior director for intelligence programs on the National Security Council. Nunes even, apparently, lied to Speaker Paul Ryan about the source of his information.

I don’t know if you watch cable news, but it’s chock full of former CIA officers who are braying for blood over the whole Russian connection to the Trump administration, and also about how Nunes is handling the investigation. What we should be concerned about is whether their near-hysteria is justified or not.

When it came to Cohen-Watnick, their concern was obviously well-placed regardless of your perspective. From the Trump team’s perspective, he was a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode in their faces. From an ordinary person’s perspective, he just compromised a congressional investigation.

Cohen-Watnick worked under Michael Flynn at the Defense Intelligence Agency (before Flynn was fired and flew the coup for Moscow) and Cohen Watnick was personally recruited by Flynn to work on the National Security Council. When Flynn turned out to be a disaster, it should have surprised no one that one of his top recruits would meet the same end.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.