WASHINGTON – Michael Ellis, a former Republican political operative, resigned Friday as the National Security Agency’s top lawyer, having been sidelined for three months after President Joe Biden took office.

The NSA director, Gen. Paul Nakasone, had placed Ellis on administrative leave the day President Donald Trump left the White House – just as Ellis was taking up the position. The reasons: a pending Pentagon inspector general probe, an official told The Washington Post at the time, and a security inquiry into Ellis’s handling of classified information, according to a letter from Ellis’s attorney to Nakasone, a copy of which was obtained by The Post.

Nakasone had agreed to install Ellis as general counsel just days earlier under orders from Trump’s acting defense secretary. The role does not require Senate confirmation.

The inspector general inquiry into the circumstances of Ellis’s selection remains open, Nakasone told Congress on Thursday.

Now Ellis has given up waiting for a resolution.

“I have been on administrative leave for nearly three months without any explanation or updates, and there is no sign that NSA will attempt to resolve the issue,” Ellis said in a letter to Nakasone on Friday, a copy of which was obtained by The Post. “I therefore resign my position, effective immediately.”

Ellis’ resignation was first reported by Fox News. Ellis declined to comment beyond the letter.


The NSA declined to comment.

The Pentagon general counsel, under White House pressure, named Ellis in November to lead the NSA’s legal department. (The NSA is part of the Department of Defense.) The move raised concerns among Democrats and national security experts that it was an attempt by the Trump administration to install a loyalist in a sensitive and senior position – one with visibility into the activities of other U.S. spy agencies.

Critics pointed to Ellis’ lack of experience in running a large legal team and noted he had graduated from Yale Law School only a decade earlier. He had been selected over two other finalists, both of whom had more experience as intelligence agency lawyers. One was the acting NSA general counsel. The other was acting general counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Ellis joined the Trump White House in early 2017, becoming a lawyer on the National Security Council. Before that, he was chief counsel to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a staunch Trump supporter and then-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Republicans decried the criticism of Ellis as politically motivated, and last month demanded an inspector general probe of Nakasone’s decision to place Ellis on leave.

Under questioning from House Intelligence Committee Republicans on Thursday, Nakasone acknowledged he was aware that the inspector general’s preliminary finding found no improper political influence in Ellis’s selection. He added, however, the inquiry was ongoing.

He also acknowledged that the agency granted Ellis a top secret security clearance on Jan. 19, the day before Ellis was placed on leave.

In his letter, Ellis said he offered last month to meet with Nakasone to “resolve any concerns” he might have regarding Ellis’ qualifications. Ellis wrote he received a response last week in which Nakasone declined the offer and did not provide additional information.