The National Security Agency said Sunday it was installing Trump National Security Council staffer Michael Ellis as its general counsel, after acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller ordered NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone to place the Trump loyalist into the role.
“Mr. Ellis accepted his final job offer yesterday afternoon. NSA is moving forward with his employment,” an NSA spokesperson said in a statement. Ellis will start in his new role on Tuesday, according to a source familiar.
Ellis, who was a lawyer for the NSC, had been named to the position in November, but the NSA had yet to move him into the role. The Washington Post and CNN reported Saturday that Miller, who was installed as acting defense secretary as part of a purge of agencies after the election, had ordered Nakasone to install him into the position, giving him a Saturday evening deadline.
“The General Counsel of the Department of Defense is the sole selection authority for the position of General Counsel of the National Security Agency - as well as all other senior career DoD General Counsel positions,” according to a statement from the Department of Defense. “The Director of the NSA does not select or approve of candidates for the position of the NSA General Counsel.”
The move is significant because the role of general counsel at the country’s largest intelligence agency is a civil service position, not a political role, meaning it could be difficult for the Biden administration to remove Ellis. The strategy of trying to install political loyalists into career positions is known as “burrowing” in the government.
The Pentagon declined to comment Saturday when news of the deadline broke.
Within days of Ellis being picked for the job in November, which came shortly after President Donald Trump fired then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper via Twitter, Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Jack Reed requested an investigation from the Pentagon’s acting inspector general, saying in a letter, “The combination of timing, comparative lack of experience of the candidate, the reported qualifications of the other finalists, and press accounts of White House involvement create a perception that political influence or considerations may have played an undue role in a merit-based civil service selection process.”
Before joining the Trump administration, Ellis served as the head counsel to California Rep. Devin Nunes, one of Trump’s staunchest supporters. Ellis then became a lawyer with the NSC, refusing to testify as part of the House’s 2019 impeachment inquiry. In March 2020, Ellis became the senior director for intelligence on the NSC, joining other Trump loyalists in key intelligence positions.
When reached by The Washington Post on Saturday, Ellis said: “I don’t talk to the press, thank you,” and hung up. CNN has been unable to reach Ellis for comment.
Susan Hennessey, a former NSA attorney and CNN legal and national security analyst, ripped the decision to install Ellis in the Trump administration’s last weekend in power. “At this point, no one should extend this selection process the benefit of the doubt. By all indication, the Trump admin is violating civil service rules and politicizing an apolitical role. If Ellis is installed tonight, Biden should remove him on Day One,” she wrote on Twitter.
The general counsel of the NSA is not a Senate-confirmed position, Hennessey explained on her Lawfare blog, which removes a step of Congressional oversight that exists for roles such as general counsel of the CIA, Pentagon, or Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The goal of this process was to remove any political bias in appointing a candidate to one of the key roles at the NSA.
“This is a really difficult, really important job and we have a process to ensure only qualified individuals are in the role *BECAUSE* it is necessary to the national security of the United States,” Hennessey wrote on Twitter.
This story has been updated with a statement from the Defense Department.