Who Is the Hidden Hand at the NSC?

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Mike Flynn has been out at the White House for more than four months. He is, we are told, in the most serious kind of legal trouble. Yet the political ghost of Mike Flynn still seems to be a hidden hand driving outcomes in the Trump White House. Maybe it’s even Flynn himself.

Allow me to explain.

On Friday, Foreign Policy published an article explaining that the White House is pushing for widening the war in Syria over Pentagon objections. Look into the details and you see it’s more specific than ‘widening the war’. It’s moving from a near exclusive focus on defeating ISIS to pushing a broader confrontation with Iran, which is of course heavily involved in Syria.

Not only does this run the risk of a major and damaging military confrontation with Iran. It almost certainly complicates or hurts the campaign against ISIS since Iran is itself extremely hostile to ISIS and fighting it on the ground in Iraq and Syria.

So who exactly is “the White House” here?

According to the Foreign Policy piece, it’s principally two people. Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Derek Harvey, respectively the chief intelligence adviser at the NSC and the chief Middle East advisor. If that first name rings a bell, it should: Cohen-Watnick is the Flynn protege who was behind the Devin Nunes, Susan Rice “un-masking” nonsense caper. While Cohen-Watnick was up to that mischief, McMaster, as one of his first orders of business was trying to can him.

But he was blocked by Trump and Bannon.

Dereck Harvey is clearly a hawk but he at least seems to be respected within the military and intelligence establishments beyond just Mike Flynn. David Patraeus had him as an advisor and he appears to have held Harvey in high esteem.

There’s an additional element to the story that bears directly on the Russia probe.

Remember that the most plausible read of what Cohen-Watnick was doing in that case was trying to surveil the investigation into his boss and mentor, Flynn, and the larger Russia probe. White House Counsel Don McGahn appears to have realized that as soon as Cohen-Watnick brought the “findings” of his “review” to the Counsel’s office. McGahn told Cohen-Watnick to stand down. That prompted Cohen-Watnick to pull an end run by going to Nunes.

Here’s what I wrote in early April …

As even Lake concedes, Rice’s alleged actions – if the report is accurate – were almost certainly legal. Most national security experts say they were not only legal but entirely proper. Moreover, the kind of snooping around that Cohen-Watnick was apparently doing could very plausibly be interpreted as an attempt to monitor or interfere with the on-going counter-intelligence probe of Trump associates’ ties to Russia. The White House Counsel’s job is to protect and look after the legal interests of the President. A good lawyer would likely want to shut that kind of freelancing down right away, especially if what Cohen-Watnick had found didn’t amount to anything that helped the President or the White House.

My basic question is: why does Cohen-Watnick still have a job? Maybe McMaster couldn’t fire him on day one. But he’s had months to establish himself and place his stamp on the NSC.

Who is opposing this at the Pentagon? According to Foreign Policy, it’s principally Secretary of Defense Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chair Dunford. Foreign Policy is less clear on where McMaster stands but assumes (I think rightly based on other published reports) he is in the latter (Pentagon) group. (Remember, that Mattis is considered a major Iran hawk; the fact that he opposes this speaks volumes.)

Now, conflicts between Departments (State, Defense, CIA, et al.) and the NSC are common in American foreign policy. The NSC often wins them. That is not odd in itself. What is odd is that in this case the “NSC” is not clearly being driven by the President’s National Security Advisor. That’s highly odd.

Indeed, if we look at the current NSC it seems to still be stocked in many cases by Mike Flynn’s people. Again, not entirely out of the norm. A new boss isn’t really in a position to fire everyone at once. But Mike Flynn isn’t any former NSC boss. He resigned in disgrace and is at the center of an investigation that is consuming the whole country. Copious reporting says that he has not been permitted to fire a number of Flynn people.

Who exactly is keeping Cohen-Watnick and others like him in place? Remember, this isn’t my imagination or speculation. McMaster tried to fire him as soon as he took over the NSC. More than not being fired, what juice does he have that is allowing him to carry on major inter-agency battles to which the NSC chief, his nominal boss, is either a bystander or an opponent? You don’t stay in a position like that against that kind of opposition – and certainly not with that much power – unless someone very powerful is on your side.

There is some unseen power center at work here. Is it the President? Is it Steve Bannon? Is it Flynn? From what I can tell it’s not clear. But it seems pretty important to find out.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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