Trump’s In­vis­i­ble Man

In­side the mys­te­ri­ous rise of Ezra Cohen-wat­nick, the young NSC of­fi­cial at the cen­ter of a bizarre Rus­si­a­gate sub­plot

Newsweek - - NEWS - BY JEFF STEIN @Spytalker With reporting by Alex Graves

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.

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