WASHINGTON – A senior White House adviser on intelligence was removed from the National Security Council on Wednesday, just days after drama within Washington's top echelons led to the resignation and firings of U.S. President Trump's chief of staff, press secretary and director of communications
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Ezra Cohen, a staffer inside the NSC who was appointed by U.S. President Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was dismissed by the latter's successor, General H.R. McMaster. McMaster had wanted to fire Cohen ever since he replaced Flynn in March, but failed to do so because of an intervention by Steve Bannon, Trump's far-right political adviser, who convinced the president to protect Cohen from McMaster.
Cohen's title within the NSC, the body responsible for providing the president with foreign policy strategy and advice, was senior director for intelligence, a senior position which includes coordination between the White House and the U.S. intelligence community. McMaster, according to news reports, believed that Cohen, who is 31 years old, did not have the required experience for the job. Cohen is considered close to Flynn and Bannon, who both share extreme views about Islam and the Middle East and are opposed to McMaster's more moderate approach, which is in line with traditional American policy.
Cohen's firing was first reported on Wednesday by Jordan Schachtel, a journalist at Conservative Review, who used to work for Breitbart, the right-wing website previously edited by Bannon. In his story about Cohen's firing, Schachtel also attacked McMaster for "refusing to fire" career diplomats working for the NSC ("Obama holdovers" is the phrase used by many right-wing publications to describe them) and for the leaks coming out of the NSC under his watch.
Another development within the NSC which was reported on Wednesday was the firing of Rich Higgins, another NSC staffer appointed by Flynn and considered close to Bannon. Higgins, according to a report by Rosie Gray in The Atlantic, was fired for authoring a memo which said that "globalists," the "deep state" and "bankers" are working together with "Islamists" to destroy the Trump presidency. Higgins wrote in his memo that "Globalists and Islamists recognize that for their visions to succeed, America, both as an ideal and as a national and political identity, must be destroyed."
These two developments are part of a larger battle between McMaster and Bannon, who fundamentally disagree on a number of key issues, including at least two with a direct connection to Israel: the re-location of the American embassy to Jerusalem (Bannon supported the idea, McMaster and the NSC warned against it), and the Iran nuclear deal, which Bannon and his supporters pushed the president to scrap, against the advice of McMaster and other senior administration officials who urged Trump to keep it. For the time being, McMaster has won both battles. McMater also won an earlier battle in April when he forced Bannon to be removed from the NSC's "principals committee."
In the background of this power struggle are a number of other personnel changes within the NSC in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Haaretz reported that Jason Greenblatt, Trump's special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, is expanding his team, and has added Victoria Coates, an NSC official who previously worked for Senator Ted Cruz, to his staff. Greenblatt has also been discussing the addition of a number of State Department experts to his team.
In addition, Mike Bell, a retired Army Colonel, was promoted to the position of Senior Director for the Middle East within the NSC. Bell, who served until now in the NSC as an expert on the Persian Gulf, is replacing Derek Harvey, another retired Colonel, who was in charge of Middle East policy since the early days of the Trump administration, but left the NSC last week. Bell and Harvey both share a close relationship with General David Petraeus, the former CIA Director and commander of the US Central Command. Both men served under Petraeus' command in Iraq last decade.