Late on Wednesday evening, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster fired Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the National Security Council’s controversial top intelligence official. Cohen-Watnick was a hardcore Trump loyalist whom McMaster had long wanted to dismiss but who had kept the job because of strong support from senior administration officials — and President Trump himself.
Cohen-Watnick’s firing comes about a week after Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top Middle East official, was dismissed despite sharing Trump’s hawkish views on Iran. It comes less than a month after Rich Higgins, a member of the NSC’s strategic planning office, was dismissed for writing a memo alleging that “Islamists ally with cultural Marxists because, as far back as the 1980s, they properly assessed that the left has a strong chance of reducing Western civilization to its benefit.”
The moves suggest that McMaster, widely seen as one of the more conventional and sober foreign policy voices in the Trump White House, is clearing out the people in his office who are more aligned with radical figures like Steve Bannon. For a long time, it seemed like McMaster was not empowered to do this and that the three-star general himself could be on the way out — but evidently, something has changed.
Whatever it is, it’s clear that the staffing foundation on which Bannon might have tried to build a new nationalist foreign policy is being ripped out — and by one of his chief White House rivals.
Why Cohen-Watnick’s firing is so important
The Cohen-Watnick firing matters because he used to be untouchable.
Cohen-Watnick has long been — per a blockbuster Politico report — a rather controversial figure. He’s a 31-year-old who has limited intelligence experience but developed a close relationship with Bannon and Jared Kushner during the presidential transition. He was appointed as senior director for intelligence by Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn (who was later fired for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the US).
Cohen-Watnick's rapid rise came as a shock to many outside observers since his professional background had been limited to a couple of years at the Defense Intelligence Agency, which is less well-known — and less respected — than the CIA. Despite the thin résumé, Cohen-Watnick got the senior director job, a high-level post responsible for overseeing the White House's interactions with the CIA and other US intelligence agencies. It's a particularly important and difficult job given Trump's ongoing war of words with the nation's spies over the extent of Russia's meddling in the 2016 elections.
His loyalty to the president ran deep. When Trump claimed, without evidence, that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower in early March, Cohen-Watnick combed through old intelligence intercepts, seemingly in an attempt to vindicate him. He even leaked some of them to a friendly Republican in Congress, Rep. Devin Nunes.
When McMaster took over from Flynn, on February 20, he set about trying to get his own people rather than Flynn’s in top spots. Cohen-Watnick was one of the people he came for: On March 10, he informed Cohen-Watnick that he would be moved to a different position in the NSC. On March 12, Trump personally intervened (reportedly at Bannon and Kushner’s prompting), overruling McMaster and keeping Cohen-Watnick in place.
It was a painful rebuke to McMaster: a sign that he would not be able to run his own shop, and that the “nationalists” — people who were skeptical of America’s traditional alliance commitments and hostile to Islam as a religion — would have real control over McMaster’s NSC.
That might not be true anymore. With Cohen-Watnick, Harvey, and Higgins out, it’s clear that McMaster has managed to gain some degree of control over who gets to work for him. That means he’s likely to appoint more conventional types — people who strongly support America’s internationalist stance and see clear lines between jihadism and Islam — to fill their old jobs. The foreign policy establishment, memorably termed “the Blob” by Obama aide Ben Rhodes, is on the march.
What enabled McMaster’s power play isn’t yet obvious. It could be a combination of things: Maybe Higgins’s absurd memo created a pretext for his firing, and perhaps new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (a former general) gave military man McMaster more power. We’ll have to wait for more time to pass — and more leaks from the White House — to be sure.
But there is one thing we can be confident about: The rumors that have been flying around Washington of late about McMaster’s lack of influence and imminent departure were at very least premature. You can’t throw around this kind of weight if you have one foot out the door.