Trump’s Invisible Man
Inside the mysterious rise of Ezra Cohen-watnick, the young NSC official at the center of a bizarre Russiagate subplot
THE WELL-MANICURED Washington, D.C., suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland, is probably what President Donald Trump’s supporters imagine when they whoop about draining the capital’s “swamp.” A high-income enclave of Volvo-driving, wine-sipping, public-radiolistening lawyers, lobbyists, journalists and government bureaucrats, Chevy Chase is such a liberal stronghold that local Republicans said last year they were afraid to plant Trump campaign posters on their lawns.
All of which makes the town an unlikely launch pad for Ezra Cohen-watnick, the suddenly prominent White House National Security Council official at the center of a bizarre backdoor maneuver to provide House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes with top-secret documents on government surveillance. CohenWatnick reportedly retrieved the documents from a classified CIA terminal in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House and gave them to Nunes, a California Republican who had been a member of Trump’s transition team. They were intended to prove that former President Barack Obama was “wire tapping” Trump during the 2016 campaign. The documents did no such thing, other members of the panel concluded after studying them. What they actually showed is that U.S. intelligence agencies did have Trump’s associates on their radar—but only because they were tracking Russian agents.
The incident triggered a House Ethics Committee probe into Nunes and forced him to recuse himself from his own panel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. But it also prompted questions from longtime intelligence officials about how Cohen-watnick, a 30-year-old with apparently only a single, allegedly trouble-filled, juniorlevel tour of duty with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Afghanistan on his résumé, managed to secure one of the most consequential jobs in the White House: coordinating all of the U.S. intelligence community’s operations with the Oval Office and Congress. In less than a year, Cohen-watnick had been raised from the equivalent rank of an army captain to a three-star general.
“He makes sure they carry out the president’s agenda,” says a former White House National Security Council official, who, like every intelligence source consulted by Newsweek, declined to be identified discussing such sensitive issues. And that agenda, the president and his men have made clear, is to whittle down the power of the CIA.
How this young man amassed such influence mystifies longtime intelligence officials.
How he hung on to his job after Army Lieutenant General H.R. Mcmaster, successor to fired White House national security adviser Michael Flynn, reportedly tried to oust him following the Nunes affair is another part of the puzzle.
FROM STRING BEAN TO SPOOK
Ezra Cohen-watnick’s unlikely journey from Chevy Chase’s liberal cocoon to backroom shenanigans in the Trump White House was less a straight shot than a dotted line. It may well have begun with Frank Gaffney, a former Ronald Reagan administration official who has emerged as a leading conspiracy theorist and believes that Muslim militants have infiltrated the U.S. government and even the Republican Party. At Bethesda– Chevy Chase High, Cohen-watnick was close to Gaffney’s daughter. As the years went by, he gravitated to Gaffney associates, who eventually took him into the White House.
Cohen-watnick was a sophomore on September 11, 2001, when Al-qaeda militants flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The attacks prompted patriotic fervor among young people, who volunteered in droves for the military services and intelligence agencies. The affable, string bean teenager was too young to enlist, but he joined his high school’s Young Republicans club. And at the University of Pennsylvania, where he enrolled in 2004, he signed up for the Naval Reserve Officers Training Course, according to a 2006 account in the school paper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. “[I]t was very important to him to be able to give back to something he has benefited from—in this case, the national security that has kept generations of his family safe,” the paper said.
HIS AGENDA IS TO WHITTLE DOWN THE POWER OF THE CIA.
Cohen’s professed patriotism found other outlets at Penn. He joined the members-only Union Club, “Philadelphia’s iconic bastion of GOP conservatism,” according to a local columnist. But Cohen was also moving beyond the conservative mainstream. In 2007, he helped organize a campus “Terrorism Awareness Week” (originally called “Islamo-fascism Awareness Week”) in concert with David Horowitz, a close Gaffney ally whose crusade against “liberal elites” on campus has been supported by top Trump aides Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon. At some point, a close family friend recalls, asking for anonymity in exchange for talking about personal matters, Gaffney offered the budding young hawk internships at his D.C. think tank, the Center for Security Policy. (Gaffney tells Newsweek in a brief telephone interview that he barely recalls Cohen-watnick from as a high schooler and has had no contact with him since.)
Some of Cohen’s liberal family friends, who asked not to be identified so as not to upset long-standing relationships, were disturbed by what they call his growing anti-muslim fervor, especially when they heard him express sympathy for illegal Israeli settlements and other hardline political views. Another family friend tried to persuade the young man that the Middle East was far more complicated than he thought.
Whatever his emerging politics were, CohenWatnick evidently decided that a career in a Navy uniform was not for him. He dropped out of the ROTC program in 2007, according to a
HE WAS ALLEGEDLY NOT A TEAM PLAYER AND WOULD “LEAK” DENIGRATING INFORMATION ABOUT HIS FELLOW TRAINEES TO INSTRUCTORS
HI, NUNES! Cohen-watnick reportedly passed top-secret documents to Nunes that he claimed were proof Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. They weren’t.