Trump attorney who ‘burrowed’ into critical job at last minute is placed on administrative leave

Donald Trump may have never admitted that he lost—bigly—but he sure spent his last months in office acting like a loser. That wasn’t just a matter of Trump completely checking out of his already inadequate governance, or drumming up support for an insurrection. It also included a firestorm of ripping out even marginally competent officials and making last-minute Trumpist substitutions. In particular, Trump got genuinely busy right after the election in replacing top Pentagon and national security officials. Some of those new officials seem to have been involved with the slow, inadequate response to the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

Even after the failed coup, the deck chairs kept moving on the Trumptanic. Less than 24 hours before Trump made the nation genuinely grateful by leaving Washington for good, Trump loyalist Michael Ellis was sworn in as the top attorney for the National Security Agency (NSA). This is a slot that’s supposed to be a nonpolitical civil service position awarded to the best qualified applicant. The push to seat Ellis in this post raised immediately generated calls for a review by an inspector general. But Trump’s team pushed around those calls to seat Ellis and keep him working until the last minute.

That minute is up. President Biden has placed Ellis on administrative leave. Now everyone wants to know just what he did in his less than two days on the job.

Ellis was not a newcomer to the Trump White House. He was originally a White House attorney before Trump handed him the role of senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council in March 2020. As Kerry Eleveld reported at that time, Ellis was considered a “Trump loyalist” who had no experience in intelligence. He was already known as someone who had slipped classified information to Rep. Devin Nunes and for requesting that transcript of Trump’s Ukrainian call be moved to a more secure server. His move to the NSC came shortly after Republicans handed Trump a free pass on his first impeachment—an impeachment that included key witnesses from the NSC who testified to Trump’s attempted blackmail of the Ukrainian president. 

Even though Ellis was already in the NSC and there were only days to go, The New York Times reports that former Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller scrambled to move Ellis into place over objections. Among other things, Ellis’ appointment seems to be a clear violation of rules against “burrowing,” in which political appointees are assigned supposedly competitive civil service positions that normally carry on between administrations. Insiders have also said that Ellis was given the job over several more experienced attorneys who scored higher and had applied for the position. Why the rush? Well, for one thing, the top attorney has almost total control over that classified server where the transcripts from the Ukraine conversation and other classified conversations are stored. 

For the moment, Ellis has been ordered to the sidelines. The Biden White House put Ellis on administrative leave Wednesday evening.

However, if the investigation fails to show that seating Ellis violated regulations, the protections provided to civil service jobs could well see him returning. Which doesn’t mean he would once again be in charge of such critical areas. He may get to stay, but he can definitely be reassigned.