Trump’s pick for senior intel director raises troubling security concerns: law professor
(AFP / Brendan Smialowski)

President Donald Trump is clearly determined to make certain that U.S. intelligence has as many loyalists as possible. In addition to nominating Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe for director of intelligence, Trump has chosen Michael Ellis (a White House lawyer) as senior director of intelligence on the National Security Council (NSC). And in an article for Just Security, law professor Ryan Goodman explains why he finds Ellis to be a troubling choice.

Goodman, who formerly worked in the U.S. Department of Defense under President Barack Obama and now teaches law at New York University, warns, “What makes the elevation of Ellis to this new post especially surprising is that the most specific charges against Ellis in the Ukraine matter involve his allegedly abusing the government’s national security classification system in a manner that not even Republicans in Congress were willing to defend.”

By Ellis’ actions in the “Ukraine matter,” Goodman is referring to the role Ellis played in moving the transcript of Trump’s now-infamous July 25 phone conservation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to a classified server. That conservation led to Trump’s impeachment: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other high-ranking Democrats argued that Trump committed an impeachable offense when he tried to pressure Zelensky into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden — and used military aid to Ukraine as a condition for that investigation.

According to the testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman — who Trump fired from the NSC — Ellis suggested moving the transcript of the July 25 conversation to a highly classified server, and NSC lawyer John Eisenberg signed off on that idea.

Goodman notes that Ellis, in his new capacity, will be “working hand-in-hand” with Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell as well as Kash Patel (who is now a senior adviser to Grenell). Like Patel, Ellis was a staffer on the House Intelligence Committee when it was still being chaired by far-right Rep. Devin Nunes (a strident Trump supporter who is prone to conspiracy theories).

“In March 2017,” Goodman recalls, “Ellis became caught up in the White House scandal of sharing intelligence information with Nunes in an apparent effort to discredit the Russia investigation.”

Brett Holmgren, who held the position of senior director of intelligence under Obama, told Just Security, “The position serves as the focal point for coordination between the White House and the (director of national intelligence) on a range of issues, from setting the president’s intelligence priorities and providing guidance to the DNI on policy matters, to determining who in the U.S. government is granted access to covert action programs and other sensitive operations.”

Ned Price, a former NSC spokesperson, also offered some insights on the responsibilities Ellis will have. Price told Just Security, “The senior director for intelligence serves as the linchpin between the worlds of policy and intelligence. Ellis will be responsible for coordinating the authorization and implementation of our most sensitive covert action programs, but what especially worries me about him in this role is what he’ll seek to do vis-a-vis sensitive intelligence reporting. His will be a critical voice when it comes to what to share with Congress and the American people regarding what we’re learning about foreign efforts to interfere in the 2020 election.”