The revelation that two White House staffers fed classified documents to Rep. Devin Nunes raises new questions about the elevation of Steve Bannon to the National Security Council in January.
Last Monday, Nunes announced Trump and members of his transition team may have been the subject of legal incidental surveillance. The House Intelligence Committee chairman Nunes has since refused to disclose the source of his information—even to fellow members of the House Intelligence Committee—fueling speculation over the source and contents of those documents.
A bombshell New York Times report released Thursday revealed that former House Intelligence Committee general counsel Michael Ellis—who was tapped to join the White House on Mar. 7—and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, former deputy to disgraced National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, were the sources behind Nunes’ unorthodox announcement last week.
Cohen-Watnick worked for Flynn at the Defense Intelligence Agency before joining Trump’s transition team, AlterNet reports. He was later brought on to the National Security Council by Flynn. According to a Mar. 13 Politico report, following Flynn's ouster as National Security Adviser, Trump’s replacement, H.R. McMaster, tried to sideline Cohen-Watnick. A source told Politico that McMaster's decision was based in part on Cohen-Watnick's close ties to Flynn, insisting the pair “saw eye to eye about the failings of the CIA human intelligence operations."
After hearing word of the impending shake-up, Cohen-Watnick appealed to two key Trump advisers with whom he forged relations while on the Trump transition team: Bannon and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. According to Politico, the pair "brought the matter to Trump" on Mar. 13, and he agreed that Cohen-Watnick could stay on as the National Security Council’s senior director.
Bannon, Trump’s chief White House adviser, had become a “statutory member” of the National Security Counsel on Jan. 29, an unprecedented move that one State Department official called “bizarre.” Three days prior, on Jan. 26, the Department of Justice, led by acting attorney general Sally Yates, notified the White House counsel that Flynn lied about his the contents of his phone conversation with Kislyak. Flynn would not step down from his position as National Security Adviser for another two weeks. On Jan. 30, just three days after she personally warned the White House of Flynn’s communications with Kislyak, Yates was ousted as acting attorney general for refusing to defend the president's ill-fated travel ban.
On Mar. 4, days before Ellis's hiring and a little more than a week before Trump became personally involved in saving Cohen-Watnick's National Security Council role, the president tweeted his baseless accusations that former President Barack Obama had ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower. Trump has since said he felt Nunes' announcement last Monday "somewhat" vindicated his wiretap claim. Top officials, including Nunes, have said the information in no way substantiates the president's assertion.
Nunes on Thursday refused to confirm or deny whether Ellis and Cohen-Watnick were the sources behind his incidental surveillance information, insisting he "will not respond to speculation from anonymous sources."
At a press conference Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer declined to comment on the source of Nunes' intelligence.