President Donald Trump personally ordered the department of justice to hire a former White House official who was fired after he was caught up in a controversy over the release of intelligence material to a member of Congress, according to people familiar with the matter.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who left the National Security Council last year, will advise attorney general Jeff Sessions on national security matters. He was fired from the White House following reports that he had shown house intelligence chairman Devin Nunes classified documents.
The material allegedly revealed that members of the Obama administration had sought the identities of Trump campaign officials and associates inadvertently caught on government intercepts, in a process known as “unmasking.” Mr Nunes then disclosed that information publicly in an attempt to bolster Mr Trump’s unsubstantiated allegation that his predecessor had wiretapped him.
As a matter of policy, the White House generally doesn’t approve the rehiring of staff who were fired, aides said. But after it became clear the president wanted Mr Cohen-Watnick on the attorney general’s staff, the move was approved.
His rehiring drew criticism from Democrats, who speculated Mr Cohen-Watnick may attempt to interfere in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“Given Mr Cohen-Watnick’s reported role in helping congressman Nunes turn the house intelligence committee investigation into a partisan breeding ground for conspiracy theories, his new position with the attorney general at such a sensitive time is deeply troubling,” Matt House, a spokesman for Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, said in a statement. “Mr. Cohen-Watnick must not come anywhere near the Mueller investigation, and Democrats will watch like a hawk to ensure that’s the case.”
Mr Cohen-Watnick also previously worked with the president’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who resigned after he misled administration officials, including vice president Mike Pence, about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the US.
He left the White House in August. His new role at the Justice Department was first reported by the New York Times.