WASHINGTON — The White House has engaged in a slow-motion purge of hard-line officials at the National Security Council in recent weeks, angering conservatives who complain that the foreign policy establishment is reasserting itself over a president who had promised a new course.
The latest to go was Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who ran the NSC's intelligence division and, like others who have left, was appointed by Michael T. Flynn, President Donald Trump's first national security adviser. Flynn resigned in February after it was disclosed that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and others about a telephone call with Russia's ambassador.
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster succeeded Flynn and has slowly tried to move out some of Flynn's appointees. He initially tried to fire Cohen-Watnick earlier this year, only to be rebuffed by Stephen K. Bannon, the president's chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser. But Kushner dropped his opposition this week, according to someone with knowledge of the decision.
A fierce Trump loyalist, Cohen-Watnick drew attention when he and another White House official briefed Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on classified intelligence reports revealing that U.S. intelligence agencies had conducted incidental surveillance of Trump's transition team. The briefing was intended to bolster Trump's unsubstantiated claim that President Barack Obama ordered phones tapped at Trump Tower.
Cohen-Watnick's resignation was announced by the White House late Wednesday. "General McMaster appreciates the good work accomplished in the NSC's intelligence directorate under Ezra Cohen's leadership," a spokesman said in a statement. "He has determined that, at this time, a different set of experiences is best suited to carrying that work forward. General McMaster is confident that Ezra will make many further significant contributions to national security in another position in the administration."
His departure follows several others last month. Tera Dahl, the deputy chief of staff at the NSC and a former writer for Breitbart News, which was run by Bannon before he joined the White House staff, left for a post at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Later in the month, in separate developments, Derek Harvey, the top Middle East adviser, and Rich Higgins, the director of strategic planning, were pushed out.
Higgins was forced out after writing a memo arguing that Trump was being subverted by an array of foreign and domestic enemies, including globalists, bankers, officials of the "deep state," Islamists and those questioning interactions between Trump campaign officials and Russia, according to a report in the Atlantic magazine.
All four officials were considered Trump allies who shared the anti-globalist views of Flynn and Bannon. McMaster, whose relationship with the president has been strained at times, has long wanted to remove the pro-Flynn hard-liners from his staff. First to go was K.T. McFarland, a former Fox News analyst, who was pushed out as deputy national security adviser in May and nominated to be ambassador to Singapore.
The latest moves come at a time of heightened unease in the world, punctuated by North Korea's recent intercontinental ballistic missile test, and continued uncertainty about the leadership and direction of the council, which was created to provide presidents with in-house guidance on foreign and military affairs.
Trump, according to several administration officials, has been considering a shakeup that could include appointing Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, to take over as national security adviser, while sending McMaster to command forces in Afghanistan. Such a move could earn McMaster a fourth star.
NBC News reported Wednesday that the president recently suggested that Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, be fired. White House officials have said the president has yet to decide on any new moves.
Trump has been considering a new strategy for Afghanistan, but it has become mired in his frustration over the options he has been given. McMaster presented the president with a plan to bolster the effort in Afghanistan after a stormy meeting of national security officials, only to have Trump reject it. The president has publicly asked why the United States should still be in Afghanistan after nearly 16 years.