The Man McMaster Couldn’t Fire

Thirty-one-year-old Ezra Cohen-Watnick holds the intelligence portfolio on the National Security Council—but almost everything about him is a mystery.

A man standing between the Defense Intelligence Agency headquarters and the White House
Patricia Hofmeester / Julia Luzgareva / Shutterstock / Defense Intelligence Agency / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Just 24 days into his tenure as Donald Trump’s national-security adviser, Michael Flynn was forced to resign, having reportedly misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian officials. When Flynn departed, the men and women he’d appointed to the National Security Council grew nervous about their own jobs, and with good reason. The new national-security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, promptly began clearing out Flynn’s people, among them Dave Cattler, the deputy assistant to the president for regional affairs; Adam Lovinger, a strategic-affairs analyst on loan from the Pentagon; and KT McFarland, Flynn’s deputy, who was eased out with the ambassadorship to Singapore. Even Steve Bannon, among the most powerful people in the White House, was removed from the meetings of the NSC Principal’s Committee, in which he had been installed early on in the administration.

There was one person, however, whom McMaster couldn’t get rid of: Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence programs. McMaster tried to remove him in March, but President Trump, at the urging of Bannon and Jared Kushner, told McMaster that Cohen-Watnick was staying, as first reported by Politico. According to a senior White House official, the two men had a sit-down meeting the following week in which McMaster acknowledged that he hadn’t been able to do what he wanted to do, and that they would keep things as they are and “see how they go for a while.” That was more than four months ago. That Cohen-Watnick, 31 years old and largely unknown before entering the administration, has become unfireable reveals how important he has become to the Trump White House, where loyalty is prized.

The “senior” in Cohen-Watnick’s title reflects the importance of his job, if not the level of experience he brings to it. The senior director for intelligence programs on the NSC is a powerful position, designed to coordinate and liaise between the U.S. intelligence community and the White House.

“If the incumbent has an effective working relationship with the national-security adviser or even the president directly, the senior director for intelligence has an opportunity to exercise considerable influence on intelligence policy, covert actions, and sensitive collection operations,” says Stephen Slick, a former CIA official who held the position during the Bush administration.

The CIA has traditionally had control over who fills this position, and normally the job is staffed by a more experienced official. McMaster, assuming he’d be allowed to relieve or reassign Cohen-Watnick, had gone so far as to interview Cohen-Watnick’s potential replacement, Linda Weissgold, a veteran CIA officer.

Despite his prominent, and apparently quite secure, position in Trump’s NSC, little is known about Cohen-Watnick, who had spent much of his short career as a low-ranking official at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Information about him in publicly available sources is scarce. Few higher-ups from the DIA remember him. Only one picture of him can be found online, a snapshot unearthed by Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen.

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.

“I won’t talk to any journalist about Ezra,” says Michael Ledeen, a Flynn confidant who knows Cohen-Watnick well.

“Is it one of your hit pieces?” asks Bannon, who didn’t respond to a further request for comment.

Bannon and Ledeen may be wary of talking about Cohen-Watnick after his first, and thus far only, turn in the national spotlight. Washington got its first real look at Cohen-Watnick when he was identified as one of two White House sources who provided House Intelligence chairman Devin Nunes with evidence that former national security adviser Susan Rice requested the “unmasking” of the names of Trump associates in intelligence documents. In the intelligence world, incidental collection refers to intelligence agencies obtaining, in the course of monitoring foreigners, communications that either refer to or involve Americans, whose names are typically “masked” unless officials request that they be “unmasked.”

The incident, coming in the aftermath of Trump baselessly accusing his predecessor of wiretapping Trump Tower, became one of the first dustups related to the investigations into possible Russian collusion during the 2016 campaign that have gripped the White House. The president later accused Rice of having committed a crime; for her part, Rice has denied that she ordered the unmasking for political purposes.

Despite that early controversy, Cohen-Watnick retains one of the most consequential intelligence jobs in the nation, and his influence is rising. He is in the thick of some of the most important policy fights at the White House; he is viewed as an Iran hawk and has been characterized, for instance, as a main proponent of expanding U.S. efforts against Iran-backed militias in Syria. And beyond policy specifics, he’s become a flashpoint in the long-running tension between Trump and the intelligence community, a part of the U.S. government that the president has at times openly disdained.

Yet what we don’t know about Cohen-Watnick far outstrips what we do. Was he a central player in the Nunes scandal, or just a bystander? Has he retained his job due to his talent, or is he being protected because he’s advancing the agenda of powerful West Wing patrons? What, besides loyalty to the president, are his credentials? Is he Flynn’s mole on the council, or does he not even know the deposed national-security adviser all that well? Is he brash and difficult to work with, or modest and brilliant? And perhaps most important: Now that he has the president’s ear, what will he whisper into it?

Cohen-Watnick was raised in Chevy Chase, Maryland, an affluent suburb of Washington. His father is a lawyer; his mother a doctor; the couple is separated. Liberal, affluent Montgomery County is not exactly a hotbed of right-wing sentiment. Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine won 74 percent of the vote there in 2016.

Cohen-Watnick attended Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School, graduating in 2004. It was in high school when Cohen-Watnick seems to have become politically active. One person who knew him at the time says that, together with a friend, Cohen-Watnick set up a table outside the Barnes and Noble in downtown Bethesda in the summer of 2003 to “just sort of argue with people about the Iraq War …  just to get into fights with Bethesda liberals.” A White House official denied this anecdote, saying it was “false.”

“Ezra’s politics are not at all normal for the cultural milieu in which he grew up,” this person says. (Cohen-Watnick did, however, intern for then-Senator Joe Biden in high school.)

Cohen-Watnick entered the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 2004. He struck one classmate there at the time as a libertarian, but over the years seemed to shift in a more hawkish direction, the classmate says. Cohen-Watnick was involved in an on-campus Terrorism Awareness Week connected to the controversial conservative writer David Horowitz’s “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” events.

“We need people to be passionate about the problem of terrorism,” he’s quoted as saying in a Daily Pennsylvanian article about the event, advocating more courses devoted to the subject.

As a sophomore, Cohen-Watnick told The Daily Pennsylvanian that from a young age he had wanted to serve in the Navy. “Cohen said it was very important to him to be able to give back to something he has benefitted from—in this case, the national security that has kept generations of his family safe,” the paper reported.

But in September 2007, he also told a friend that his main goal was working for the CIA. Cohen-Watnick talked about his goal of becoming a spy “all the time,” this person says. “He did talk about the DIA,” this person says. “He always talked about it as the backup to his CIA goals.”

One White House colleague who has known Cohen-Watnick for a long time described 9/11 as a formative event for him, and remarked that members of his age group were old enough to remember the attack vividly, but young enough that it happened before they had embarked on careers. This person pointed out that Cohen-Watnick’s career path was unusual for his milieu: “Not many folks from our sort of sphere were making the decision to go into public service.”

Cohen-Watnick’s history becomes murkier around 2008, his final year at Penn. His friend from school says the last time they saw him or heard from him was before the spring semester that year. Cohen-Watnick is listed on an online roster among a group that attended the Penn in D.C. internship program in Washington in 2008, in his case interning with the Office of Naval Intelligence. Cohen-Watnick took a civilian job with the Navy after college.

A DIA spokesperson confirmed that Cohen-Watnick had joined the DIA in 2010, and left it in January of 2017, but would otherwise not confirm or comment on the details of his service. One colleague of Cohen-Watnick’s says that his last job was three or four ranks higher than the one in which he began.

Newsweek reported that Cohen-Watnick entered the Defense Clandestine Service in 2012 and was sent to “the Farm,” the CIA training facility in Virginia, in 2013. Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen reported on Twitter that Cohen-Watnick had done work on Haiti while based out of the Department of Defense’s Miami office. Records show he registered to vote in 2012 with a Miami address, as a Republican and as a Hispanic male (his mother is Colombian).

According to a former senior intelligence official, Cohen-Watnick later served overseas in Afghanistan at a CIA base. “He was embedded with the agency guys,” says a person familiar with Cohen-Watnick’s career. “But the agency guys were all like ‘Fuck this guy, he’s just here to spy on us for Flynn and the DIA.’”

A White House official says that Cohen-Watnick did not know Flynn at the time he was in Afghanistan but did not dispute that there were “rivalries between CIA and DIA.”

It was Cohen-Watnick’s connection with Michael Flynn that would catapult him into the top ranks of America’s intelligence officials. But even the seemingly straightforward question of how and when they met yields contradictory and conflicting accounts. One person familiar with his career asserted that Cohen-Watnick had met Matt Flynn, Michael Flynn’s son, at the Farm. Another, a former senior intelligence official, says he had briefed Flynn at the DIA.

According to a third person familiar with the matter, the real story is that Cohen-Watnick actually met Flynn much later, in 2016, at a coffee arranged by Michael Ledeen’s wife Barbara, who Cohen-Watnick knows from growing up outside of Washington. Ledeen is a friend of Flynn’s and co-authored the book The Field of Fight with him. Barbara introduced him to Cohen-Watnick; the couple connected the young officer with Flynn, and the two kept in touch over the course of the year. Flynn became a prominent surrogate for the Trump campaign, famously leading a “lock her up” chant at the Republican National Convention, and was even considered as the running mate.

Flynn’s time at the helm of the DIA was notoriously troubled. The general came in with a brash approach that rubbed his colleagues the wrong way and eventually led to his being forced out in 2014 by then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Mike Vickers.

This appears to have been a time at which Cohen-Watnick was at a crossroads. In the summer of 2016, Cohen, unhappy at the DIA, began applying for positions on Capitol Hill, interviewing with the House Armed Services Committee, a congressional staffer says. He was notified on August 16, 2016, that he wouldn’t be getting the job. Later that year, in November, Cohen-Watnick married Rebecca Miller, according to a notice on his family’s synagogue’s website.

Trump’s election changed everything for Cohen-Watnick, as it did for many people in Washington. He was chosen for the NSC job during the transition, surprising his new colleagues.

“I didn’t know Ezra from Adam,” says one former intelligence officer who is a member of the NSC. “I didn’t know what job he was going to have in the transition. I met him a few times. I didn’t realize he was running it at first.”

“It’s a very important position and essentially it’s a deep cull,” says a White House colleague who has known Cohen-Watnick for years. “It’s an early pick.” This official describes Cohen-Watnick as someone who would seem like a natural choice for the job in five or 10 years’ time, but not now.

“It is noteworthy that someone with very limited experience (a very junior GG-12 in DIA) is appointed to such a senior and critical position,” says Doug Wise, who was for a time Flynn’s top deputy at the DIA . (“GG-12” is the equivalent of an Army captain in the DIA; Cohen-Watnick’s rank before he left was actually GS-13, equivalent to a major, according to a source familiar with his career). “This is especially noteworthy when you compare Cohen to some of the individuals who have served in that position, George Tenet, David Shedd, Mary Sturtevant, Stephen Slick, and other very experienced officers were already members of the Senior Intelligence Service when they were appointed. These and the other officers who served in that position were career intelligence officials with serious credentials, demonstrated maturity, and a wealth of experience.”

One way or another, Michael Flynn seems to have elevated Cohen-Watnick to his high station in the Trump administration. What remains a mystery is who exactly has protected him since Flynn went down, and why.

Cohen-Watnick’s ability to hang on despite the direct attempt by his superior to remove him raised eyebrows across Washington, and especially in the intelligence world.

“It is very unusual that when H.R. McMaster tried to move Cohen to another position within the NSC, his decision was publicly overturned by the president,” Wise says. “This says much more about Cohen’s political connections than his experience in the intelligence business.”

Here, again, multiple officials directly familiar with the events offer contrasting versions of what took place. Some insist that Kushner and Bannon were willing to expend capital on behalf of Cohen-Watnick. According to one person with direct knowledge of the meeting, the roots of their loyalty to Cohen-Watnick stem from a briefing he delivered during Trump’s first visit to the White House Situation Room in February, at which Kushner was present as well as Pence. Kushner and the president were apparently impressed with the young briefer and took an interest in him.

“Ezra is deeply thoughtful, hard working, and committed to serving the president,” Kushner says, offering a rare on-the-record comment, which is itself a testament to Cohen-Watnick’s importance.

But a favorable first impression doesn’t quite explain the president intervening to prevent his boss from removing him. Others stressed his commitment to Trump’s worldview, such as it is Trump’s foreign policy statements have been long on rhetoric, but short on specifics—prompting leading figures within the White House to contend for influence, seeking to persuade the president to back their preferred approaches. Those drawn from the ranks of the Republican foreign-policy establishment tend to favor its traditional views: committed to longstanding alliances like NATO, skeptical of Russia, and supportive of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others, who supported Trump’s insurgent campaign early on, tend to favor the ideas he advocated on the stump: concern that allies are freeloading, interest in strengthening ties with Russia, and a focus on the threat posed by Islamic extremism in nations like Iran.

This split has created a decision-making process in which the responses to each unfolding event can point in a different policy direction than the last. After the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians in April, for example, Trump ordered strikes against one of their airbases, angering Syria’s ally Russia. But the Trump administration recently announced a cease-fire agreement for southwest Syria negotiated with Russia.

In this context, a staffer who personally briefs the president on his options can be an invaluable ally to other senior officials. And in an administration that has struggled to fill senior national-security roles with appointees sympathetic to Trump’s ideas, a staffer whose views are closer to the president’s than to the think tanks that line Massachusetts Avenue may be too valuable to lose.

“I would describe President Trump’s foreign-policy vision as absolutely one Ezra completely supports,” says the White House colleague who has known Cohen-Watnick for years. “Ezra has consistently provided value, insight, and support at the highest levels of the White House.”

This may be why several White House staffers used the same word to describe Cohen-Watnick: loyal. One White House official praises Cohen-Watnick as a “true professional and most importantly he is incredibly loyal to the president and this administration.”

“He’s loyal to the president and he’s made a super impression on everyone that deals with him, me included,” says the former intelligence officer who is now a senior NSC official.

The Nunes scandal cemented Cohen-Watnick’s reputation as a loyalist and as someone who could withstand the heat of public controversy. But once more, different officials offer flatly contradictory versions of what transpired.

The story was first reported by The New York Times, and then expanded by other outlets. On the night of March 21, House Intelligence chairman Nunes got a call from a source, jumped into another car, and didn’t tell his staff where he was going. He was going, it turned out, to the White House. The next day, Nunes gave a now-infamous press conference at the Capitol in which he described how “the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.” Though the phrase “incidental collection” by definition refers to the communications of individuals who are not targets of surveillance, Nunes’s statement was taken by Trump supporters as vindication of the president’s tweet accusing Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower, an incident intelligence chiefs have told Congress never happened.

Nunes claimed at one point that his source had been an intelligence official, not White House. Citing four U.S. officials, the Times later reported that his sources on the intelligence reports were Cohen-Watnick and Michael Ellis, a lawyer in the White House Counsel’s Office focused on national security. But the question of who cleared Nunes onto White House grounds, and why Cohen-Watnick was looking into the material, have never been fully answered. The strong implication of the stories about the incident has been that either Cohen-Watnick, Ellis, or both cleared Nunes onto the campus.

But one official with knowledge of the incident offered a sharply different account. Cohen-Watnick was asked to look at unmasking procedures by a civil servant working in the Situation Room as part of a review, this official claimed, weeks before the Nunes visit to the White House. In a tweet on March 4, Trump had accused the Obama administration of wiretapping Trump Tower during the election. Cohen-Watnick asked to see examples of unmasking and was given a block-calendar year to review. In those, he saw “something that made him concerned” and informed John Eisenberg, the NSC legal adviser.

Weeks later, according to this official, Cohen-Watnick went over to Eisenberg’s office on a different matter and found the door closed; he was told that another White House staffer was inside the office with Nunes. He did not enter the office. According to the official, this was the extent of Cohen-Watnick’s involvement in the Nunes affair.

The incident snowballed quickly. On March 27, Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking member on HPSCI, called for Nunes to recuse himself. Nunes eventually bowed to pressure—and an ethics complaint—and announced his recusal on April 6. In doing so, he blamed “leftwing activist groups” and said the charges against him were “entirely false and politically motivated.”

(Nunes has gone on to claim that he never recused himself from the investigation, and has issued subpoenas relating to the probe. His spokesman did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.)

Whether or not Cohen-Watnick was actually one of Nunes’s sources, the public reports tied him to the controversy. They also left the impression that, to defend the president against claims he had leveled unsubstantiated charges of wiretapping against his predecessor, Cohen-Watnick had been prepared to attack the actions of NSC officials and of other elements of the intelligence community. The reports about the Nunes episode suggested to career staffers, perhaps unfairly, that the NSC’s senior director for intelligence was less interested in presenting their views to the president than in imposing the president’s views on them.

Since then, the conflicts within the NSC have settled down, at least publicly. But this is the Trump White House, a hotbed of resentments even when they’re not spilling over into public view. Cohen-Watnick survived, but he’s remained a topic of gossip and a target of leaks—a flashpoint in the ongoing fight over the administration’s foreign policy.

The Washington Post reported in April that days after McMaster’s effort to remove Cohen-Watnick, the CIA’s liaison to the White House was fired. The Guardian’s story on the firing cited sources describing it as an “act of retaliation” against the CIA for encouraging McMaster to sack Cohen-Watnick, a report unlikely to endear him to his colleagues.

But then, McMaster himself became the target of unflattering leaks. In May, Bloomberg reported that Trump had “screamed” at McMaster in a phone call and had become “disillusioned” with him, and that Flynn loyalists on the NSC perceived McMaster as trying to “trick” the president into supporting nation-building efforts. Also in May, Foreign Policy reported that “the knives are out” for McMaster over internal conflicts on Afghanistan policy, with him on one side and Bannon on the other. Foreign Policy noted that McMaster has become the target of online critics, most notably Mike Cernovich, the pro-Trump activist and blogger. Cernovich has also targeted other McMaster allies in the NSC such as Dina Powell.

Cernovich has cited White House sources repeatedly in his reports, though he has told me that he doesn’t know who his sources are and relies on burner phones to keep in touch with them.

One of the most recent McMaster-related leaks was to the AP last week; sources said McMaster had told foreign officials he disapproves of Trump’s closeness with Russia. The story made West Wing senior staff “furious,” according to a senior White House official, who added “if true, a man of honor would resign.”

The leaks have created an atmosphere of suspicion on the NSC, where morale has never been particularly high since the start of the administration. But they’re not always unflattering; some leaks have suggested a prominent policy role for the young staffer. Cohen-Watnick has developed a reputation as one of the primary proponents of an aggressive, Flynn-style stance toward Iran within the NSC. A recent story in The New York Times said that Cohen-Watnick was pushing for regime change in Iran from within the administration. And another recent story in Foreign Policy tagged him and Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top official on Middle East issues, as pushing for increased action against Iranian-backed forces in Syria.

“I don’t think it was accurate at all,” says the former intelligence official on the NSC of the Foreign Policy piece, calling it “fake news recycling other fake news.” This official argued that Cohen-Watnick, in his role as the liaison between the White House and intelligence agencies, has no purview over Iran policy: “I’ve never heard Ezra talk about; it’s not in his lane and he’s not involved in those regional policy discussions.”

Furthermore, this official says, those who think NSC officials are exerting broad influence over policy are misreading the current NSC by comparing it to the Obama-era one, where “they were micromanagers who had a long screwdriver and were fundamentally calling the shots even on tactical-level operations in places like Syria and Iraq.”

“I’ve never seen the media [more] united about a topic than around Ezra, and that’s a cause of curiosity amongst anyone with some sense of skepticism,” says the White House official who is close to Cohen-Watnick.

Cohen-Watnick’s allies see the leaks about him as evidence of a concerted campaign backed by his detractors in the intelligence community. They suggest that this is motivated by his conflict with the CIA. And they have a different theory as to why he has retained his job, and why he’s drawn attacks: It’s because, they insist, he’s good at what he does.

“He’s a genuinely funny, sardonic, very intelligent, interesting human. He’s not a robot or the way he’s been portrayed,” says one of the senior White House officials. “That human element has been I think completely lost in all of the coverage of him.”

“He’s very engaging, very personable, he tries to connect with people,” says the former intelligence officer on the NSC. But he is “able to parse and probe in a way that makes some of his interlocutors very uncomfortable.” Plus, “the fact that he’s younger than many of these people creates a natural backlash.”

This official described a recent interagency meeting in which Cohen-Watnick was asking about the reasons for covert programs in a country that “on the surface seemed to make sense,” but Cohen “identified a waste of resources and ineffective application,” a duplication of efforts costing an extra $30 million.

Cohen-Watnick’s intense approach, this person says, “causes some people to respond negatively rather than saying ‘Aha, this is a good thing, now we can reprogram.’” CIA representatives pushed back on Cohen-Watnick, and the atmosphere was “frustrated.”

Like most people in this kind of job, Cohen-Watnick is a workaholic, sometimes sleeping on his couch in case he has to respond to something or go somewhere in the middle of the night, the White House colleague who knows him well says. Asked what he does for fun, the colleague says Cohen-Watnick works out and reads military history and philosophy.

It’s an appealing account. The trouble is, like most everything else about Cohen-Watnick, it’s all but impossible to verify, or to reconcile with other versions. Perhaps it’s because he’s emerged so swiftly from the murky world of intelligence. Or maybe it’s because he sits on the fault line of a fractured administration. But now that he’s in the spotlight, he may find further scrutiny hard to avoid.