Purge: McMaster fires two Bannonites on National Security Council

The John Kelly era has officially begun.

Is Bannon himself next?

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, has been dismissed from the White House, two senior administration officials who are not authorized to discuss personnel matters told Conservative Review on Wednesday…

He has been described as an “Iran hawk” who wanted to revamp counter-Iran efforts in the Middle East, and sought to reform the intelligence community to rein in the “deep state” of unaccountable bureaucrats with rogue agendas.

Cohen-Watnick is the latest Trump loyalist to be fired by Gen. McMaster, whose security council continues to be overwhelmingly staffed with Obama holdovers (almost all of whom have retained their positions).

Cohen-Watnick’s firing is a big deal on two levels. One is that he was allegedly the staffer who helped lead Devin Nunes to the raw intelligence reports that jumpstarted the “unmasking” investigation into Obama natsec personnel. The CIA reportedly wanted him out around that same time, possibly because of his role in the unmasking probe, possibly for other reasons. Purging him now suggests that McMaster, at least, regrets the NSC’s role in that controversy. The other key point about Cohen-Watnick is that McMaster did try to fire him months ago — and was blocked by Trump, at the urging of both Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. Now, suddenly, two days after John Kelly assumed control in the West Wing, McMaster finally gets his wish and Cohen-Watnick is gone. That’s almost as much a statement of Kelly’s new authority as canning Anthony Scaramucci was.

The other purged staffer is Rich Higgins, who was “seen as an ally of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon” and reportedly let go on July 21st. The alleged cause: A memo he wrote that frames the national security challenges faced by Trump in terms familiar to populist right-wing media but at odds with McMaster’s own worldview:

Higgins’s memo describes supposed domestic and international threats to Trump’s presidency, including globalists, bankers, the “deep state,” and Islamists. The memo characterizes the Russia story as a plot to sabotage Trump’s nationalist agenda. It asserts that globalists and Islamists are seeking to destroy America. The memo also includes a set of recommendations, arguing that the problem constitutes a national-security priority…

“Because the left is aligned with Islamist organizations at local, national, and international levels, recognition should be given to the fact that they seamlessly interoperate through coordinated synchronized interactive narratives … These attack narratives are pervasive, full spectrum, and institutionalized at all levels. They operate in social media, television, the 24-hour news cycle in all media and are entrenched at the upper levels of the bureaucracies.”

That sounds like a Sebastian Gorka column, which makes me wonder if he’ll be the next to go. He’s a Trump favorite per his aggressive defenses of the president in TV segments, but then so was the Mooch and you saw what happened to him. It’s hard to believe there’s room for Gorka in the West Wing if there’s no room for Cohen-Watnick and Higgins, although maybe it’s the fact that he is mostly a media presence for the White House rather than someone with significant natsec responsibilities that will lead to him being retained. If Trump gets to have Gorka on Fox, maybe he won’t mind Cohen-Watnick and Higgins off the NSC.

Actually, the purge goes even further than that. Last week a third NSC staffer with extensive experience in the Middle East, Derek Harvey, was booted from the National Security Council, supposedly because “he was viewed by some top Trump aides as too close to Steve Bannon.” It’s strange to think of Bannon losing influence in the White House on the day that his immigration views got their biggest boost yet from the president, but here we are. Maybe this is a pure “stay in your lane” thing from McMaster: If Bannon wants to focus on domestic priorities like reducing immigration and hiking taxes on the rich, fine, but leave foreign policy to the professionals.

Or maybe this is a sign that forces are aligning against Bannon that will push him out the door too. He lost a key ally in Reince Priebus last week, leaving him facing powerful opponents on domestic policy in Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn and powerful opponents on foreign policy in McMaster and Kelly. Trump would have to think carefully before ridding himself of the guy who represents the single biggest link to the right’s populist base, but it could be that a higher-profile role for Stephen Miller would soften that blow. Miller already had plenty of fans on the nationalist right and doubtless made some more today. If Miller stays on and Sessions (grudgingly) stays on, maybe Bannon is expendable in the Kelly White House.

Whatever happens, it’s interesting that McMaster has been asserting his own authority for weeks, even before Kelly became chief of staff, given the rumors swirling that he’s on thin ice with Trump himself. A few days ago it seemed like McMaster was a fair bet to be the next to sent packing; I saw a rumor somewhere this morning that he might be shipped off to lead the fight in Afghanistan. If he’s on shaky ground with Trump, how is it that he has the president’s backing on all of these firings? Per the Weekly Standard, it could be that the “shaky ground” rumors were exaggerated, pushed by Bannon himself or people loyal to him to try to undermine McMaster as he went about uprooting Bannonism from the NSC. One of them’s pretty got to go soon. Who will it be?