The National Security Council’s controversial senior director for intelligence programs has been removed from his position, sources say, in the latest sign that National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is asserting control over the office he runs.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a 31-year-old former Defense Intelligence Agency officer who was brought in to the administration by former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn, was let go from the council this week, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
The White House confirmed Cohen-Watnick’s firing on Wednesday evening, with a White House official saying in a statement: "General McMaster appreciates the good work accomplished in the NSC's Intelligence directorate under Ezra Cohen's leadership. 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."
According to a senior administration official familiar with the matter, Cohen-Watnick is expected to move to another job within the administration. The official said that there had been a plan to keep Cohen-Watnick in the job until a new position was finalized, but that Cohen-Watnick was called in to a meeting with McMaster on Wednesday in which McMaster informed him he would be leaving now.
McMaster already tried to fire Cohen-Watnick earlier this year, but was rebuffed by President Trump after White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner intervened to keep Cohen-Watnick in his job.
A source close to Kushner said “Jared is a big fan of Ezra’s and is grateful for his contributions to the administration as part of the NSC but obviously completely defers to General McMaster on all NSC personnel decisions. He looks forward to seeing what’s next for Ezra.”
Cohen-Watnick, seen as a Flynn loyalist, had a difficult relationship with McMaster and with people in the intelligence community to whom he was the White House’s liaison. He had played a role in the unmasking saga involving House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, who accused former National-Security Adviser Susan Rice of improperly exposing the identities of Trump transition officials in intelligence reports. The New York Times reported that Cohen-Watnick was one of Nunes’ sources.
Cohen-Watnick’s removal is the latest in a series of firings by McMaster, whose tenure at the helm of the NSC has been marked by tension with some of his employees as well as conflict with Bannon and a less-than-stellar rapport with Trump. On July 21, McMaster’s deputy Ricky Waddell fired Rich Higgins, a director for strategic planning on the council who had produced a memo alleging a “political warfare” conspiracy against the president conducted by globalists and Islamists using the tactics of a Maoist insurgency. Last week, McMaster fired Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top official for the Middle East and, like Cohen-Watnick, a Flynn appointee.
The dismissals of Harvey and Cohen-Watnick are happening around the same time as the entrance of a new White House chief of staff, former Department of Homeland Security chief John Kelly, whose first act in the job was to fire the new communications director Anthony Scaramucci after Scaramucci’s profane rant to The New Yorker.
An NSC spokesman didn’t immediately return a request for comment.