WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency is moving forward with hiring a Trump administration loyalist, the agency said Sunday, after the acting defense secretary ordered he be made the spy agency’s top lawyer.
Christopher C. Miller, the acting defense secretary, gave Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, the spy agency’s director, until 6 p.m. Saturday to install Michael Ellis as its general counsel.
The deadline came and went with the National Security Agency remaining silent. But the agency said in a statement Sunday that “Ellis accepted his final job offer yesterday afternoon. NSA is moving forward with his employment.” He has not been formally sworn in, and it is not clear when that would happen.
Ellis has been accused of having a hand in one of the more contentious legal decisions the Trump administration made: the attempt to stop John Bolton, the former national security adviser, from publishing a damning book about the president.
Ellis’ allies had pushed for him to be installed before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated. While it will be difficult to fire Ellis under Civil Service rules, the Biden administration could easily reassign him to another, less important post.
The Biden transition team declined to comment.
A senior official at the National Security Council and a former top lawyer to Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, Ellis applied months ago to be the National Security Agency’s general counsel.
He was one of three finalists, although he did not receive the highest score from the panel evaluating the candidates, according to people familiar with the hiring process. Nevertheless, White House officials told the Defense Department general counsel that the administration favored Ellis for the job.
Positioning a political appointee in a Civil Service job is a complex procedure requiring various approvals to prevent favoritism in the hiring process. With Ellis, the Office of Personnel Management eventually determined that the general counsel position was exempt from a policy requiring special approval, although those deliberations slowed the process. Ellis also had to seek a new security clearance.
Although Nakasone was not pleased that Ellis was chosen over career officials at the National Security Agency, he did not actively block or slow the process of installing Ellis, according to two people familiar with the matter. He did, however, insist that all procedures were followed and all approvals were put in writing.
At the Pentagon, Miller was angry that the agency’s leadership had slow-rolled Ellis’ installment for months despite his going through the standard hiring process and being selected for the position, a senior U.S. official said. So Miller ordered the agency to swear in Ellis, a move The Washington Post reported Saturday.
Ellis is seen as a smart lawyer. But the push to install him in a permanent government job puzzled some. According to former officials, he is likely to enter the general counsel’s office under a good deal of suspicion and will have an uphill battle to win the confidence of Nakasone.
Ellis will be a member of the Senior Executive Service, a Civil Service job that has strong protections against firing. However, civil servants can easily be moved in the Defense Department, so he could be given a legal job elsewhere in the sprawling department — overseeing compliance with environmental regulations at a remote military base, for example.
When he was on the Intelligence Committee, Ellis was a trusted adviser to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. Ellis held various roles in the Trump administration, including serving as a lawyer for the National Security Council and then the White House’s senior director for intelligence.
At the White House, Ellis overruled the decision by a career official to clear Bolton’s book for publication, even though he had no formal training in the classification of national security information. The Justice Department, under pressure from President Donald Trump, sued Bolton to recoup his profits from the book.
A judge overseeing the case issued a ruling Thursday that makes it highly likely that Bolton’s lawyer, Charles J. Cooper, can question White House officials like Ellis about whether the classification decisions were made in bad faith. Should Ellis take over as general counsel, at least for a time, he may be able to stall that testimony.
Early in Trump’s term, Ellis provided Nunes intelligence reports that associates of Trump were swept up in foreign surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies. The material is at the heart of Trump’s frequent accusation that the Obama administration spied on his campaign.
Allies of Trump have pushed to declassify documents that some conservatives believe would buttress those claims, including last-minute pressure in recent days. But in reality, Ellis will have little direct power to declassify those documents or overcome Nakasone’s objections to their release.
It is not clear precisely what led the Pentagon to push Nakasone to speed Ellis’ hiring. However, Trump met with Miller on Friday to discuss various issues, according to the senior U.S. official.