National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster speaks to reporters in the briefing room at the White House on May 16. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

McMaster pushes Cohen-Watnick, Iran hard-liner, out at National Security Council


H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, removed from the National Security Council Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a controversial aide, in what appeared to be a sweep of Iran hard-liners.

[MORE: Who is Ezra Cohen-Watnick?]

The White House late Wednesday confirmed a report on a conservative news site, Conservative Review, that Cohen-Watnick, the point man for coordination between the NSC and the intelligence community, was gone. It said he would get another job within the administration.

“A different set of experiences is best-suited to carrying that work forward,” a White House official told media, saying Cohen-Watnick would continue to make “many further significant contributions to national security” as part of the Trump administration.

Cohen-Watnick’s removal comes after the revelation by The Atlantic on Wednesday of the dismissal of Rich Higgins, another Iran hawk who was the NSC’s director of strategic planning. Higgins was sacked for circulating a memo in which he alleged that there was a “Maoist” insurgency within and without the government of “globalists and Islamists.”

Also gone is Derek Harvey, who held the Middle East portfolio at the NSC, and who also was an Iran hawk, and who may assume another role in the administration. McMaster tapped Michael Bell, a retired army colonel who has a conventional career portfolio, to replace Harvey.

The removals come as McMaster seeks to consolidate his control of security policy, and remove loyalists to Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser who left after less than a month because of revelations that he had obscured Russia ties.

Notably, however, all three differ sharply from the relatively moderate Iran policy espoused by McMaster. Last month, McMaster joined Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis in persuading Trump to recertify Iran’s compliance with the Iran nuclear deal; Trump had been leaning toward decertification, which could trigger a crisis with U.S. allies who favor the deal, struck by President Barack Obama. The deal trades sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program.

Within days of the recertification, it was reported that Trump had authorized the establishment of a rival group within the White House, led by his top strategic adviser, Steve Bannon, that would seek a path out of the deal.

McMaster had previously tried to remove Cohen-Watnick from the National Security Council but was overruled by Trump, who heeded interventions on Cohen-Watnick’s behalf by Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is the senior administration official responsible for Middle East policy.

Cohen-Watnick was at the center of a controversy in March, when it emerged that he and another staffer leaked information to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, that Nunes and the White House apparently hoped would vindicate Trump’s baseless claim that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had eavesdropped on him.

This unconfirmed photo of Ezra Cohen-Watnick was posted by Al Monitor reporter Laura Rozen.

Who is Ezra Cohen-Watnick, just booted off the NSC?


The New York Times and other news outlets are reporting that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, 31, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council (NSC), has been dismissed from the White House.

Watnick, described as a “Trump loyalist,” was brought onto the NSC by former director Mike Flynn. Flynn was fired by the administration after he admitted to hiding his links to Russian and other foreign governments.

Flynn’s successor, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, has tried to dismiss Cohen-Watnick before. According to the Conservative Review web site, he was overruled by President Donald Trump and his senior advisors Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner.

In April, a Jewish Journal investigation revealed that Cohen-Watnick’s wife worked on behalf of the Russian government to improve its image in the West.  Eitan Arom reported:

The information comes from an oral history interview of Miller’s mother, Vicki Fraser, by the State Historical Society of Missouri in August 2014 (Fraser was born in St. Louis).

“Her big challenges right now are Ketchum is responsible for providing PR and marketing to try to make Russia look better,” Fraser told the interviewer of her daughter, “which is particularly difficult when they’re invading other countries and when Putin is somewhat out of control.”

The interview was discovered by E. Randol Schoenberg, a Los Angeles-based attorney and genealogy who made a name and fortune by recovering some $300 million worth of paintings pilfered by Nazis in Vienna in a landmark case in 2006.

Even as he reportedly departs, exactly who Cohen-Watnick is remains a Washington, D.C. mystery.  In a lengthy article in the Atlantic, titled, appropriately, “The Mystery of Ezra Cohen-Watnick,” journalist Rosie Gray writes:

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.

According to multiple reports, Cohen-Watnick was a “hawk” on Iran working to undo the Iran nuclear deal.

He found himself in the headlines last April when he reportedly provided California Congressman Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, with information suggesting President Donald Trump was swept up in surveillance by American intelligence agencies.

The leak led to a stall in the intelligence committee’s investigation of ties between Trump associates and Russia. In response to news of the leak, McMaster reportedly sought Cohen-Watnick’s firing then, but Trump intervened personally to save Cohen-Watnick’s job.

The departure marks the White House’s third high profile firing in recent weeks, following the dismissals of spokesman Sean Spicer and Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci.

As to why the sudden dismissal, CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jeff Zeleny tweeted his best guess.

“More McMaster house cleaning at NSC: Ezra Cohen-Watnick-close ally of Bannon and Kushner-is now out as well, WH says tonight,” Zeleny wrote.

A New York City Police Department security camera hanging across the street from Trump Tower on March 7. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Meet Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the NSC aide who reportedly leaked intel to back Trump tapping claims


Ezra Cohen-Watnick has been in the spotlight recently following reports that he was the aide behind a White House leak to help back up President Donald Trump’s claim that Barack Obama had wiretapped him.

The New York Times reported last month that the Jewish senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council was one of two White House aides who leaked the information to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The White House apparently hoped the intel, which suggested Trump campaign officials were incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by American spy agencies, would vindicate Trump’s claim that Obama had eavesdropped on him. The Times article followed a Politico report that Trump had overruled a decision by his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster,  in order to keep Cohen-Watnick in his current position.

Trump made the wiretapping claim, without citing evidence, on Twitter earlier last month. Intelligence and law enforcement officials, along with Democratic and Republican lawmakers, responded by saying there was no evidence to show that Obama had wiretapped Trump.

According to the Times, Cohen-Watnick started to review highly classified information after Trump posted his tweet in a bid to substantiate it. He and a colleague, Michael Ellis – formerly a staffer on the House Intelligence Committee – then contacted Nunes, who was on Trump’s transition team.

A Newsweek article published Thursday looked at Cohen-Watnick’s rise in the White House. Here are some of the interesting findings from that article as well as other recent reports.

Cohen-Watnick was involved in Republican groups from an early age.

Though Cohen-Watnick grew up in the liberal neighborhood of Chevy Chase, Md., he seems to have developed conservative political beliefs at an early age. In high school, he joined the Young Republicans Club, and during his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, he was a member of the Union League of Philadelphia, which a pro-Trump columnist for Philly.com described as the city’s “iconic bastion of GOP conservatism.” Cohen-Watnick also joined a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps course, although he later dropped out.

Some of his family friends were bothered by his “growing anti-Muslim fervor.”

As a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Cohen-Watnick helped plan a “Terrorism Awareness Week,” originally named “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” together with the conservative writer David Horowitz. Such “awareness week” events on other campuses, also sponsored by Horowitz, have promoted “anti-Muslim views” and featured “events with anti-Muslim activists,” according to a 2013 report by the Anti-Defamation League. Some of Cohen-Watnick’s progressive family friends “were disturbed by his growing anti-Muslim fervor, especially when they heard him express sympathy for illegal Israeli settlements and other hard-line views. Another family friend tried to persuade the young man that the Middle East was far more complicated than he thought,” according to Newsweek.

His service at the Defense Intelligence Agency was less-than-stellar, according to classmates.

Cohen-Watnick didn’t earn high praises from those DIA training program classmates who spoke to Newsweek. One source said his reputation“was poor. He was allegedly not a team player and would also ‘leak’ denigrating information about his fellow trainees” to their instructors. “While we expect each student to do their own work,” the source adds, “we also demand they develop positive and healthy partnering skills.” After a training program in Virginia, Cohen-Watnick was assigned to serve in Afghanistan. Cohen-Watnick did apparently manage to impress one important person: Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who resigned in February after acknowledging that he had misled other administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about a phone call he had with the Russian ambassador before Trump assumed office.

Cohen-Watnick and Flynn were also connected through Frank Gaffney, the founder and president of a think tank that promulgates the theory that the Muslim Brotherhood has established a “Sharia-supremacist infrastructure” in the United States in the form of mosques, cultural centers and Muslim organizations. His daughter and Cohen-Watnick were close in high school, according to Newsweek. Gaffney reportedly offered Cohen-Watnick an internship at his think tank, the Center for Security Policy, although he told Newsweek that he had not spoken to Cohen-Watnick since he was in high school. Flynn, a friend of Gaffney, later brought Cohen-Watnick to the NSC.

Cohen-Watnick’s wife did PR work for Russia.

At the D.C.-office for the PR firm Ketchum, Rebecca Miller worked with Russia. In a 2014 interview brought to light last month by Los Angeles-based lawyer and genealogist E. Randol Schoenberg, Miller’s mother said her daughter was “responsible for providing PR and marketing to try to make Russia look better.” A Ketchum representative told Newsweek that Miller stopped working on the Russia account in 2012, but the revelations of her work may raise alarm bells due to Cohen-Watnick’s ties to Flynn, whose failure to disclose a conversation with a Russian ambassador led to his resignation. Newsweek found little other information about Cohen-Watnick and Miller’s relationship. A synagogue newsletter for Ohr Kodesh Congregation, a Conservative synagogue outside Washington, D.C.,  listed the two as having celebrated their engagement in November.

White House aide Ezra Cohen-Watnick reportedly leaked sensitive information to House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), above. Cohen-Watnick's wife worked on behalf of Russia. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Wife of key Trump aide worked to make Putin’s Russia look good in the West 


In the rush to connect the dots between the Trump Administration and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Jewish wedding provided the latest purported link.

Specifically, it’s the Jewish wedding of Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the White House aide whom the New York Times identified as having leaked sensitive intelligence to a high-ranking Republican congressman in March. New information suggests Cohen-Watnick’s wife worked on behalf of the Russian government as a Washington D.C-based public relations specialist before they married.

In November, the 30-year-old Trump aide celebrated his upcoming wedding with Rebecca Miller, a content executive at the multinational public-relations firm Ketchum, which was retained until 2015 by the Russian government. While at Ketchum, Miller reportedly worked to “make Russia look better.”

The information comes from an oral history interview of Miller’s mother, Vicki Fraser, by the State Historical Society of Missouri in August 2014 (Fraser was born in St. Louis).

“Her big challenges right now are Ketchum is responsible for providing PR and marketing to try to make Russia look better,” Fraser told the interviewer of her daughter, “which is particularly difficult when they’re invading other countries and when Putin is somewhat out of control.”

The interview was discovered by E. Randol Schoenberg, a Los Angeles-based attorney and genealogy who made a name and fortune by recovering some $300 million worth of paintings pilfered by Nazis in Vienna in a landmark case in 2006.

On his blog, Schoenberg wrote that he and a fellow genealogist managed to uncover family details about Cohen-Watnick that led to the find.

Cohen-Watnick, the National Security Council senior director for intelligence, reportedly provided California Congressman Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, with information suggesting President Donald Trump was swept up in surveillance by American intelligence agencies.

The leak is particularly significant because it led to a breakdown in the intelligence committee’s investigation of ties between Trump associates and Russia. In addition, after the source of the leak was revealed, National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster reportedly sought the aide’s firing, but Trump intervened personally to save Cohen-Watnick’s job.

Ohr Kodesh Congregation, a Conservative synagogue outside Washington D.C., announced Cohen-Watnick and Miller’s aufruf, the Shabbat celebration that precedes an observant wedding, in November.

White House aide Ezra Cohen-Watnick reportedly leaked sensitive information to House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), above. Cohen-Watnick's wife worked on behalf of Russia. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

NSC aide Cohen-Watnick said to have leaked intel to back Trump eavesdropping claims


A National Security Council aide is reportedly behind a White House leak that is roiling Congress and the Trump administration.

The New York Times reported Thursday that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, was one of two White House aides who leaked information to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, that Nunes and the White House apparently hoped would vindicate President Donald Trump’s claim that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had eavesdropped on him.

Trump made the claim, without citing evidence, on Twitter earlier this month. Intelligence and law enforcement officials, along with Democratic and Republican lawmakers, responded by saying there was no evidence to show that Obama had wiretapped Trump.

Nunes, who until then enjoyed a cooperative relationship on the committee with his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., initially was part of the no-evidence chorus. But after making a sudden visit to the White House last week, Nunes emerged with a claim that he suggested partially vindicated Trump’s assertion. But the evidence – that U.S. persons were caught up in routine intelligence sweeps of foreign officials – did not implicate Obama personally.

According to the Times, Watnick-Cohen started to review highly classified information after Trump posted his tweet in a bid to substantiate it. He and a colleague, Michael Ellis – formerly a staffer on the House Intelligence Committee – then contacted Nunes, who was on Trump’s transition team.

The affair has opened a rift between Schiff, who is Jewish, and Nunes and halted their committee’s review of allegations that Russia interfered in last year’s election. Top Democrats have called on Nunes to recuse himself from the inquiry, which may implicate Trump campaign officials. He has refused.

Earlier this month, Politico reported that Trump overruled a decision by his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, in order to keep Cohen-Watnick in his position.

McMaster saw Cohen-Watnick as tainted because he had been brought to the NSC by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, who quit after revelations that he had obscured the truth about his conversations with a Russian official. The CIA also perceived Cohen-Watnick as a threat because he shared Flynn’s distrust of the national intelligence community.

Cohen-Watnick appealed to two Trump administration officials with whom he was close, Politico said – Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Stephen Bannon, his top strategic adviser. Trump sided with them over McMaster.

Cohen-Watnick celebrated his engagement to Rebecca Miller in November at Ohr Kodesh Congregation, a Conservative synagogue outside Washington, D.C., according to a synagogue newsletter.

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