In one of its final acts, the Trump administration is attempting to install a top political loyalist into a key job in U.S. intelligence that is generally reserved for apolitical career civil servants.

Michael Ellis’s elevation to lead lawyer for the National Security Agency has been decried by Democrats as an attempt to inject a former political operative into a sensitive and apolitical role in the incoming Biden administration. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Monday called for acting Defense secretary Christopher C. Miller to put a stop to it. Added House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.): “I think it’s very clear this is a part of the administration’s effort to embed people in the civil service who are political and partisan actors who don’t belong there.” NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone had delayed the move, but Miller issued the order over the weekend.

The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima has been breaking news left and right on Ellis’s elevation, and the Cybersecurity 202′s Tonya Riley runs through the ways by which Ellis could potentially be removed — something that’s more difficult with civil servants than political appointees.

But it’s worth running through specifically why they object. Perhaps as much as any behind-the-scenes player in the administration, Ellis has surfaced repeatedly as a key player in actions that seemed to politicize sensitive information.

Sharing intel with Devin Nunes

Ellis is notably a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. Back in 2017, The Post, the New York Times and others reported that while serving in the White House, Ellis helped share intelligence with Nunes, who was then the committee’s chair, which showed Trump and his allies were swept up in foreign surveillance.

Nunes and the White House then used this information in an attempt to undermine the Russia investigation and to lend credence to Trump’s allegation that he and his team were spied on. This was despite them not being the targets of the surveillance. (Foreign actors are routinely surveilled, and those who speak with them can be swept up in what is known as “incidental” collection.)

In addition to the political appearance, the involvement of the two White House officials contradicted Nunes’s claims and called into question the White House’s comments on the matter. Nunes and a spokesman had said Nunes’s sources weren’t from the White House, while then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer had cast doubt on that possibility.

The fact that they obscured the officials’ involvement drove home how dicey was the proposition.

Hiding the Ukraine call

Ellis again played a key role in a central event in the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s first impeachment.

According to testimony from former White House National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, it was Ellis who initially proposed putting documentation of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on a highly classified server — a decision that led to charges that the document was being hidden for political reasons.

Vindman qualified by saying the decision was not made with “any malicious intent or anything of that nature.” But the call didn’t appear to contain any classified information, and a 2009 executive order prohibits the classification of information to “conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error,” “prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency,” or to “prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of the national security.”

Even former NSC aide Tim Morrison, who was among the more sympathetic impeachment witnesses for Trump’s side, said, “If that was the judgment he made, that’s not necessarily mine to question, but I didn’t understand it.”

Morrison said he had been told by the NSC official who actually placed the document on the server, John Eisenberg, that it had been put there by “mistake” and “administrative error” — a reflection of how such a thing might be perceived as problematic. But Vindman testified that, “I think it was intended. But, again, it was intended to prevent leaks and to limit access.”

Ellis was also one of several witnesses to defy a subpoena to testify, earning himself a mention in the impeachment articles the House passed.

Delaying John Bolton’s book

The common thread running through the above is taking actions involving sensitive information that could be perceived as furthering Trump’s political goals. And a third event from last year very much fits the trend.

The White House fought tooth-and-nail against former national security adviser John Bolton’s decision to publish a tell-all book about his time in the administration. Ellis, once again, played a major role.

Any such books are subject to review by the administration for classified information, but that process with Bolton dragged out for months. It did so to the point where he decided to publish the book anyway, deciding the White House’s objections were no longer being made in good faith.

In the Trump administration’s own lawsuit seeking to halt the book’s publication, though, it revealed that a career official who had worked extensively with Bolton, Ellen Knight, had deemed the book to be free of classified information, only to be overruled by Bolton’s successor, Robert O’Brien, who tasked Ellis with an addition review. As I wrote back then:

“On or around April 27, 2020, Ms. [Ellen] Knight had completed her review and was of the judgment that the manuscript draft did not contain classified information,” the lawsuit states.
But a few days later, on May 2, another official launched an “an additional review,” according to the lawsuit. The official was Michael Ellis, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council. Interestingly, the lawsuit says the additional review was conducted “at the request of” Bolton’s replacement as White House national security adviser, Robert O’Brien. O’Brien had reviewed the manuscript and Knight’s guidance and decided there was still classified information in the book.
The lawsuit contends Ellis was in a better position than Knight to know about what was actually classified material. It says he “routinely receives extremely sensitive intelligence reports and analysis that most members of the NSC staff, including Ms. Knight do not” and “he has a broader base of knowledge to identify and determine information that is classified that others may not be able to identify and determine as classified.”
That may indeed be true. But it’s very notable that Knight reached her determination after months of working with Bolton. Even considering she might have less access to sensitive information than Ellis, her judgment was apparently not just that she wasn’t aware of the book containing classified information but that it did not, period.

What’s more, the White House’s contention that Ellis would be better placed to root out classified information was undermined by his lack of experience in the classification process. In fact, he had received his classification authority just two months earlier and wasn’t officially trained on it until the day after he completed his review of Bolton’s book.

Knight’s lawyer later alleged that the White House deliberately delayed the publication of the book by erroneously claiming there was more classified information. He also said Bolton’s lawyer had asked that a chapter on the Ukraine situation be prioritized so that it might be released early during Trump’s impeachment trial, but that Ellis had “instructed [Knight] to temporarily withhold any response” to the request.

Knight, according to her lawyer, singled out Ellis for particularly sharp criticism.

“DOJ attorneys showed Ms. Knight the manuscript with Mr. Ellis’s hundreds of marked passages and asked her whether it was possible that she and her team had simply ‘missed this much classified information,’ ” Knight’s lawyer said. “She firmly responded that that was not possible, and she proceeded to explain how Mr. Ellis’s re-review of the manuscript was fundamentally flawed.