December 10, 2019

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.