A pair of White House officials played a role in providing Representative Devin Nunes of California, a Republican and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, with the intelligence reports that showed that President Trump and his associates were incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by American spy agencies. [...]Several current American officials identified the White House officials as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues at the White House Counsel's Office and formerly worked on the staff of the House Intelligence Committee.
A couple of weeks ago, Politico had an interesting report that, at the time, went largely overlooked. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, apparently tried to transfer a subordinate, but he was overruled by Donald Trump, who intervened personally. As of today, this seemingly unimportant personnel decision matters in a whole new way.As Politico explained it, the National Security Council's senior director for intelligence programs, a 30-year-old intelligence operative named Ezra Cohen-Watnick, fell out of favor with the intelligence community, and was poised to be moved to a different position. Cohen-Watnick then reached out to Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, who took the matter to the president, who in turn overruled his National Security Advisor and shielded Cohen-Watnick.And why is Ezra Cohen-Watnick's role in the administration suddenly more interesting? This is why.
This may seem like a lot of names to keep track of, but stick with me for a minute.Last week, Devin Nunes quietly made a trip to the White House, when he claims he received secret information related to Donald Trump's conspiracy theory about being the target of surveillance. A day later, Nunes held two press conferences where he referred to the classified materials, which he wouldn't explain in any detail, but which he suggested bolstered the president's contentions.If the New York Times' reporting is correct, Nunes was given the information by two White House officials: Michael Ellis, who used to work for the committee Nunes chairs, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who was brought into the White House by Michael Flynn (the former National Security Advisor who was forced to resign last month), who apparently has connections to top members of Team Trump, and whose job was saved by the president personally.And what did they leak to him? According to the Times, the materials "consisted primarily of ambassadors and other foreign officials talking about how they were trying to develop contacts within Mr. Trump's family and inner circle in advance of his inauguration."OK, so why is this important?It makes the White House look bad: If the reporting is correct, two White House officials leaked secret information to an allied congressman in the hopes of substantiating one of Trump's conspiracy theories. It was information they dug up after Trump's strange tweets, not before.It makes Sean Spicer look bad: The press secretary has argued to reporters this week that White House officials were not responsible for giving information to Devin Nunes, which was always hard to believe given his secret trip to the White House complex the day before his press conferences, and which now appears to be the exact opposite of the truth.It makes Trump look bad: He claimed "vindication" after Nunes' bizarre comments, but his conspiracy theory looks no better now than it did when he first made it. In fact, if the Times' reporting is accurate, the president's claims are now worse.It makes Nunes look really bad: The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee now appears to be at the center of a ridiculous, theatrical display, in which he was voluntarily used as an extension of White House propaganda efforts.It even makes Paul Ryan look bad: The House Speaker told the nation this morning that Nunes received information by of "a whistleblower-type person." That now appears to be completely untrue. What's more, the longer Paul Ryan leaves Devin Nunes in his current role, the easier it is to argue that the Speaker is cooperating with Nunes' transparent campaign to do the White House's bidding.