A week after House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes told President Donald Trump that he had seen intelligence showing that his transition team was “incidentally” monitored, it was reported that Nunes’ sources for the intelligence were three White House staffers. One of them was Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council. Over four months after the strange sequence of events with Nunes, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster finally pushed Cohen-Watnick out of the NSC.
An official told CNN on August 2 that Cohen-Watcnick was reassigned to another job in the Trump administration.
McMaster “appreciates the good work” of Cohen-Watnick, but “has determined that, at this time, a different set of experiences is best-suited to carrying that work forward,” the official told CNN. “Gen. McMaster is confident that Ezra will make many further significant contributions to national security in another position in the administration.”
The New York Times reported that the 30-year-old Cohen-Watnick and Michael Ellis, a lawyer at the White House Cousel’s office who focuses on national security issues, were identified by current American officials as the sources for Nunes’ intelligence. The White House did not comment on the Times’ report.
The Times has reported that Cohen-Watnick first found the information while searching confidential reports after Trump accused President Barack Obama of wiretapping him before the 2016 election. Cohen-Watnick then notified Ellis, who then spoke with Nunes.
Shortly after the Times’ report, The Washington Post reported that there was a third person involved. According to their sources, Cohen-Watnick first gave the information he found to John Eisenberg, the top lawyer for the National Security Council.
Before joining the Trump administration, Cohen-Watnick worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor tweeted the below photo of Cohen-Watnick:
Here’s what you need to know about Cohen-Watnick and the situation.
1. Nunes Visited The White House Grounds Before March 22 to Meet His ‘Whistleblower-Style’ Source
On March 22, Nunes, who was a member of Trump’s transition team, surprised many in Washington by telling the press that he had new information that pertained to the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. He then met with the President, then held a second press conference.
Nunes said that the information he saw showed that that members of the Trump Transition team showed up in intelligence reports. He said the surveillance looked legal because it was picked up during “incidental collection.” That’s what happens when the intelligence community monitors a foreign target, who happens to speak with an American. Nunes even said that Trump himself possibly showed up in the intelligence, but said that the communication was not related to the Russia investigations.
The California Congressman said that many of the American citizens were identified in the reports. Usually, these names would be “masked.”
Even though Nunes stressed that nothing he saw proved Trump’s claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped him before the election, Trump still said he felt “somewhat” vindicated by Nunes’ intelligence.
Since Nunes failed to bring this intelligence to Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee before he went to the president, Democrats have questioned Nunes’ ability to conduct a truly independent investigation. Those calls grew louder after it was reported that Nunes went to the White House grounds on March 21.
According to ABC News, Nunes went to a secure location on the White House grounds to view the documents because they still weren’t available to Congress. But he still could have used a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) at another location to view the information without it being compromised.
Before it was known that Nunes visited the White House grounds, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on Friday, “I don’t know where he got them from,” referring to Nunes’ documents.
While Nunes refused to say the name of his source publicly, House Speaker Paul Ryan told CBS News that Nunes described his source as a “whistleblower-type person.”
“He had told me that — like, a whistleblower-type person had given him some information that was new that spoke to the last administration and part of this investigation,” Ryan, who also told CBS News that he hasn’t seen the documents from Nunes, said. “He briefs me about it, didn’t know the content of it, only knew the nature of it and that he was going to brief others.”
2. Cohen-Watnick Was Brought to the White House by Michael Flynn
As The New York Times reports, Cohen-Watnick is a holdover from former National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn’s staff. He brought Cohen-Watnick, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official, to the White House.
The Times’ sources say that Cohen-Watnick only started reviewing classified documents about communications of foreign officials after Trump took to Twitter on March 4 to accuse his predecessor of wiretapping him.
The officials told the Times that the reports were mostly communications from foreign officials, including ambassadors, who were trying to develop contacts with Trump’s family and team before the inauguration on January 20.
These officials told the Times that they didn’t want to be named because they could anger Cohen-Watnick and Ellis. Cohen-Watnick has been reading the reports at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. He then told Ellis about what he found, before Ellis went to Nunes, The Times reports.
After the Times’ initial report, The Washington Post reported that the information went through another hand at the White House before reaching Nunes. According to the Post, Cohen-Watnick gave the information to National Security Council lawyer John Eisenberg, then took it to Ellis. Eisenberg and Ellis both report to White House counsel Donald McGahn.
Nunes said that he went to the White House grounds on March 21 after he got a call from his source and rushed to meet them.
Flynn resigned as National Security Adviser in February after it was revealed that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the subject of his communication with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. before Trump’s inauguration.
3. Trump Personally Stopped H.R. McMaster From Moving Cohen-Watnick Out of the NSC
After H.R. McMaster was chosen as the new National Security Adviser, The Washington Post reported that McMaster told Cohen-Watnick that he would be moved to another job. U.S. officials told the Post that CIA Director Mike Pompeo told McMaster that those in the intelligence community didn’t think the young Cohen-Watnick was “up to the job.”
According to Politico, which first reported on this incident, Cohen-Watnick then went to Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. Two days after McMaster told him he would get a new job, Cohen-Watnick was back in the same place Flynn put him in.
A Washington consultant told Politico that Cohen-Watnick and Flynn “saw eye to eye about the failings of the CIA human intelligence operations,” adding that “The CIA saw him as a threat, so they tried to unseat him and replace him with an agency loyalist.”
Like Nunes, Cohen-Watnick also worked on the Trump Transition Team. As a member of the NSC, he’s responsible for briefing Trump, Kushner, Bannon and other senior White House officials and is believed to be a Trump loyalist, the Post reports.
Cohen-Watcnick kept the job until August 2, when CNN reported that he was moved to a new, unspecified position.
4. He’s a ‘Big Fan of Covert-y Action Stuff,’ an Official Told the Washington Post
Supporters of Cohen-Watnick told the Washington Post that the CIA doesn’t like him because he’s “young, brash and ambitious.” They said he is also more interested in the FBI’s counterintelligence operations against spies in the U.S. than the CIA’s overseas operations.
One official also told the Post that Cohen-Watnick is a hawk when it comes to Iran. He is “very big on how we can get more aggressive against Iran, and very dismissive that [Tehran] might escalate… Ezra is really a big fan of covert-y action stuff,” the official told the Post. The Post also reports that Cohen-Watnick doesn’t agree with CIA assessments that economic and diplomatic pressure is the way to go in Iran policy.
While Cohen-Watnick got to stay after Flynn resigned, David Cattler was let go because McMaster thought his job was superfluous, the Post reported.
5. He’s Close to Jared Kushner
Cohen-Watnick is close to Jared Kushner, a top adviser for Trump, reports the Washington Post. Kushner is also married to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump.
Voter Records.com lists Cohen-Watnick as registered to vote in Florida as a member of the Republican Party.
Cohen is also a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts Degree.