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Trump Installs Lawyer Who Worked for Rep. Nunes and Don McGahn in Key NSC Role


President Donald Trump has continued to shuffle the deck at the National Security Council (NSC), where he installed a White House ally as senior director for intelligence.

Attorney Michael Ellis started his new job on Monday and his immediate superior is White House lawyer John Eisenberg, according to Politico. The development was described as latest instance of the Trump administration putting loyalists in key roles. Ellis will be privy to extremely sensitive information.

Indeed, the reassignment of the brothers Vindman now seems a distant memory, but Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s testimony about Ellis and Eisenberg is worth singling out here. Per Politico:

Ellis also featured in the Ukraine scandal, according to testimony heard by the House Intelligence Committee during the impeachment investigation.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated Army officer who served as the National Security Council’s director for Ukraine, told lawmakers in October that Ellis and Eisenberg were the ones who decided to move the record of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky into the NSC’s top-secret codeword system—a server normally used to store highly classified material that only a small group of officials can access.

In short: a person involved in limiting access to President Trump’s July 25 call with Volodymyr Zelensky was promoted. This is the call that sparked a whistleblower complaint and got the dominoes toppling toward impeachment. The people who testified about that call were reassigned.

What else do we know about Ellis? The White House included Ellis’s résumé when announcing his addition to the White House Counsel’s Office, when Don McGahn was running the show as of March 7, 2017:

Michael Ellis serves as Special Assistant to the President, Senior Associate Counsel to the President, and Deputy National Security Council Legal Advisor. Most recently, Mr. Ellis served as General Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Prior to joining the U.S. House of Representatives, Mr. Ellis was a Law Clerk to Judge Jeffrey Sutton of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and to Judge Amul Thapar of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. Earlier in his career, Mr. Ellis served as an Associate Director in the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives. Mr. Ellis is also an intelligence officer in the United States Navy Reserve. Mr. Ellis earned his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

Some things to point out about this: 1) Ellis has intelligence experience; 2) he has experience working for Trump; 3) he was General Counsel for the House Intelligence Committee when it was chaired by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).

On that last point, the New York Times once identified Ellis as one of two White House officials who provided Nunes with “the intelligence reports that showed that President Trump and his associates were incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by American spy agencies.” That was reported on March 30, 2017. Notably, these Nunes sources were described as “whistleblowers”:

Since disclosing the existence of the intelligence reports, Mr. Nunes has refused to identify his sources, saying he needed to protect them so others would feel safe going to the committee with sensitive information. In his public comments, he has described his sources as whistle-blowers trying to expose wrongdoing at great risk to themselves.

That does not appear to be the case. Several current American officials identified the White House officials as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office and was previously counsel to Mr. Nunes’s committee. Though neither has been accused of breaking any laws, they do appear to have sought to use intelligence to advance the political goals of the Trump administration.

Then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) repeated the “whistleblower” description during an interview.

“[Nunes] had told me that like a whistle blower-type person had given him some information that was new that spoke to the last administration and part of this investigation,” Ryan said.

During his time at Dartmouth, Ellis was the editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth Review. After graduating, he actually appeared on Jeopardy! as a contestant. Several years ago, Ellis spoke about that experience during an interview with the publication he used to run. He also discussed how he came to advance Republican causes.

Ellis said that when he was a college freshman, he volunteered for the George W. BushDick Cheney campaign, ascended pretty quickly and ended up getting a job in the Bush White House after he graduated.

“My experience working on the Bush campaign in ’04 led to a position at the White House right after my graduation from Dartmouth. From March 2006 to February 2007, I worked in the Office of Strategic Initiatives, an office that actually no longer exists,” he said. “Obama shut it down once he took office, perhaps because he thought it was closely associated with Karl Rove. While I was working at the White House, I was involved in polling. It wasn’t the best year of President Bush’s administration, and especially since I was tracking public opinion, it was certainly a very humbling experience. But nonetheless, it was a great opportunity, especially for someone straight out of college, and I’m thankful that I was able to serve.”

[Image via NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images]

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.