Mike Flynn’s offer to testify in exchange for immunity and the apparent lack of anyone willing to take him up on his offer raises more questions than it answers. In fact, I’m not sure it answers any questions at all. There are various relatively minor offenses for which Flynn could plausibly be prosecuted – failure to file under FARA for his lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government, failure to file proper paperwork with the Pentagon for his paid speech in Russia, possibly untruthful answers to the FBI about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Kislyak. These charges in themselves would be thin gruel in terms of matters of any true public concern. But any competent lawyer would still insist on immunity before letting his client testify on anything related to these possible bad acts. Flynn’s lawyer states rather grandly that his client “has a story to tell and … very much wants to tell it.” But Alex Whiting of Harvard Law School argues pretty convincingly that what we learned last night likely means either that Flynn doesn’t have a story prosecutors are willing to barter for or isn’t yet willing to tell it.
So who knows what the immunity request means? Far more interesting to me is how Flynn ties in to the latest revelation in the unfolding Nunes debacle.
Let’s walk through this.
According to the report in the Times, Rep. Nunes’ secret information was the work of two Trump White House staffers: Ezra Cohen-Watnick (NSC) and Michael Ellis (White House Counsel’s Office). The Washington Post adds a third: John Eisenberg, the top lawyer at the National Security Council.
The information itself, which Nunes trumpeted so wildly last week, appears to be near meaningless in terms of validating President Trump’s claims of being wiretapped by President Obama. It seems to be highly, highly classified surveillance intelligence which is routinely collected on top foreign diplomats in the United States. It doesn’t lend any weight to Trump’s claims.
Sean Spicer claimed the material was uncovered “in the ordinary course of business“. But that sounds improbable unless Cohen-Watnick’s ordinary business was sifting through highly classified material looking for stuff to defend Trump’s inane tweets. In fact, it seems like that’s just what he was doing – and that’s the more innocent explanation (we’ll get to the less innocent one in a moment). Cohen-Watnick and whoever else was working with him found this stuff and passed it on to Devin Nunes. Whether Nunes was taken in by the ruse and reported it back to the President or was himself a participant in the ruse isn’t clear. Nunes had claimed he got his information from a “whistleblower type.” Clearly that’s not true, though, unless we now consider White House officials disseminating information on the President’s behalf to be ‘whistleblowers.’
Michael Ellis previously worked for Nunes as a lawyer on the House Intelligence Committee. His role in this caper was apparently to brief Nunes on the information Cohen-Watnick et al. had found when Nunes visited the White House. That makes sense since Ellis and Nunes clearly had a pre-existing relationship. Let’s stop right there and note that what these three men did was at least highly improper and quite likely illegal, as Bart Gellman explains here.
But even that isn’t where the story really gets interesting.
Here’s where it picks up speed.
Look at Cohen-Watnick’s background. Cohen-Watnick is a 30 year old Mike Flynn protege from the Defense Intelligence Agency who was brought in by Flynn to serve as the NSC’s senior director for intelligence programs. H.R. McMaster tried to remove Cohen-Watnick after McMaster replaced Flynn as National Security Advisor. In that goal, McMaster apparently had the strong backing of Mike Pompeo, the Director of Central Intelligence. But Cohen-Watnick appealed his ouster to Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. Bannon and Kushner went to Trump and Trump decided that Cohen-Watnick should stay in his position.
White House factional politics are not in themselves necessarily of great interest. But having two aides with no national security experience overrule the National Security Advisor on a key NSC personnel decision is rather remarkable – even more so when the person in question apparently had the job only due to the influence of the former national security advisor who resigned in disgrace and now is reportedly the target of multiple criminal and counter-intelligence probes.
That set of facts in itself raises a lot of alarm bells. Did Flynn’s influence still extend into the White House’s inner circle early this month, weeks after he was fired? Is Cohen-Watnick that important a loyalist that Bannon and Kushner would refuse to see him dismissed? Was he doing work at their behest?
For whatever reason, this Cohen-Watnick is a pretty important guy to the most important players in the Trump world.
Lauren Rozen reports tonight that Cohen-Watnick is a family friend of Frank Gaffney, one of DC’s most prominent and influential Islamophobes as well as someone who is closely tied into the Bannon/Breitbart world. Rozen was also told that Cohen-Watnick was first rejected by the CIA before going to work at the DIA. These are simply shreds of biography. But they add up to a familiar picture, one in which his close relationship with Flynn makes a lot of sense.
In this latest turn of events, Cohen-Watnick apparently scanned through highly classified material looking for something to justify Trump’s ridiculous wiretapping tweet. He then found a way to get that material to Devin Nunes when Nunes visited the White House in the middle of the night. Nunes then returned to the White House the next day to present the information to Trump. Again, it’s not altogether clear to me whether Nunes or Trump actually realized that the material was of little real consequence and had no bearing on Trump’s tweets. However that may be, at a minimum Cohen-Watnick was using his access to highly classified information to mount a political pushback campaign against the various Trump/Russia probes and quite likely breaking the law to do so.
But Bart Gellman, who has a very granular understanding of the modalities and rules tied to handling this kind of material, suggests an additional possibility: that Cohen-Watnick et al. had this material because they were using their privileged access to the nation’s top secrets to keep tabs on the FBI’s investigation of Trump and his top associates. Yes, read that last sentence again, I’ll wait.
Got it? Let’s continue.
The mix of events here is so bizarre and convoluted that it’s hard to know what to make of it. To be clear, Gellman isn’t suggesting his latter theory is proven. I think he would call it an informed speculation or logical surmise. But I would argue that the precise ins and outs of the drama are less relevant than this: Cohen-Watnick is a protege of Michael Flynn. He appears to be plugged into the DC Islamophobe network, anti-CIA, etc., along with Flynn. The President took extraordinary steps to protect Cohen-Watnick as recently as a couple weeks ago. Whether the President did this based on his own knowledge of the situation or simply because Bannon and Kushner asked him to isn’t clear. It also may not matter.
Cohen-Watnick went to extraordinary, at least highly improper and likely illegal, steps to engage in political pushback on the President’s behalf. There is at least some circumstantial evidence that he was doing this to monitor or subvert the FBI’s investigation of the President and his top associates. Whether political pushback or obstruction, it is unlikely Cohen-Watnick would take such perilous steps on his own. Remember, Director of Intelligence Programs at the National Security Council. A simple review of the calendar makes it all but certain that Cohen-Watnick was up to this funny business at the same time Bannon and Kushner intervened to save his job – and, with that job, his almost unrivaled access to all US intelligence.
A recap of the timeline is helpful: McMaster reportedly told Cohen-Watnick he was out on the March 10th. By the 14th, McMaster had been overruled by President Trump. Devin Nunes’s midnight run to the White House to get a look at Cohen-Watnick’s handiwork came on the 21st.
As I’ve noted, big scandals create a vast gravitational field around them. People apparently unrelated to the main action keep getting pulled in. Until the full story is told, our best means of judging the scope of these scandals is the pull they have over those nearby. Things like this don’t happen unless there’s something big to hide. Incompetence and malevolence certainly play a role. The Trumpian need to fight every accusation and slight do as well. But none of those secondary factors explain what we’re seeing.
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