One of the two White House aides reported by The New York Times on Thursday to have provided intelligence to House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes was told by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster that he would be removed from his job on the National Security Council just days before Nunes viewed the intelligence reports.
But President Donald Trump reportedly intervened to keep the aide in place.
The Times reported Thursday that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, according to several current US officials, was one of two sources who provided Nunes with the intelligence. Cohen-Watnick serves as the senior director for intelligence at the NSC.
McMaster, according to Politico, made his decision about Cohen-Watnick after weeks of pressure from CIA officials who were unsure of the operative. Cohen-Watnick, as Politico wrote on March 14, appealed the decision to White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser Jared Kushner, two men he became close with during the transition. Bannon and Kushner then presented his case to Trump, who overruled McMaster’s decision to oust Cohen-Watnick as senior director for intelligence at the NSC and move him to another job.
Cohen-Watnick was an underling of Michael Flynn, the ousted national security adviser whom McMaster replaced. Cohen-Watnick worked for Flynn when he was in charge of the Defence Intelligence Agency.
The Times story detailed that Cohen-Watnick began reviewing the highly classified reports on which he reportedly later briefed Nunes shortly after Trump made his unfounded claim on Twitter that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower.
A week after the Politico story was published, Nunes made his trip to the White House grounds to view the intelligence that he brought to the attention of the press and the president the following day. Nunes, a member of Trump’s transition team, claimed the intelligence he was shown proved that information on members of Trump’s transition team, as well as possibly the president himself, was “incidentally collected” by the intelligence community during the transition period on “numerous occasions.” The intelligence showed, he said, that Trump was “monitored.”
He added that he believed the intelligence was legally obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and was not related to the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election — which, he said, made it fair to share with the president. Nunes’ committee is heading an investigation into Russia’s involvement in the presidential election, and the chairman did not brief his fellow members on the intelligence reports before holding a press conference and meeting with the president on March 22.
Trump, later that day, said the information Nunes provided him “somewhat” vindicated his unfounded claim that he was surveilled by Obama’s administration.
Nunes’ first press conference on the intelligence came two days after FBI Director James Comey testified to the House Intelligence Committee that the bureau was looking into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials to affect the election.
A number of Democrats, and even a Republican legislator, have called on Nunes to recuse himself from the investigation. Nunes has repeatedly insisted that the events of the past week were not part of a coordinated effort between himself and the White House.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said during Thursday’s press briefing that he would not make any statements that would confirm or deny the Times report.
“We’re not as obsessed with the process as with the substance,” Spicer added.
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