Over the weekend, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller reportedly ordered National Security Agency (NSA) Director Paul Nakasone to install ex-Trump White House official Michael Ellis as the NSA’s general counsel. The position of top lawyer for the NSA is a career civil service position, meaning that Ellis’s stint as general counsel for the agency would presumably outlast the Trump administration. Originally, Defense Department General Counsel Paul C. Ney Jr. named Ellis to the job back in November, but he has not yet assumed the actual position amidst concerns from Nakasone about “a long-standing policy that prevents embedding political personnel into career civilian positions prior to a change in administration,” according to The Washington Post.
Besides his past work in the Trump White House, Ellis’s experience also includes a stint as top lawyer for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), an ardent conspiracy theory peddler and Trump ally. According to the Post, Nakasone “recently got a verbal indication from the Office of Personnel Management that” the policy against placing political hires in civil service positions prior to a new presidential administration “did not apply to intelligence community employees,” but on Thursday, Nakasone “requested a written legal opinion on that point, according to two officials,” the Post says. As of Saturday evening, he hadn’t yet received this requested written opinion.
The Post notes that, in the wake of Nakasone’s failure to comply with acting Defense Secretary Miller’s Saturday deadline for Ellis’s installation, the Defense Department’s “next move” isn’t immediately clear. According to sources for the Post, “Nakasone was not in favor of Ellis’s selection and has sought to delay his installation.”
Susan Hennessey, who once worked in the office that Ellis would lead, said that his selection “appears to be an attempt to improperly politicize an important career position.” This instance of politicizing federal government functions would not, of course, be the first example of such behavior for the Trump administration, but the potential effects of this particular debacle on the Biden administration are notable. Hennessey said that in the absence of “a compelling rationale” for Ellis’s immediate installation, “there should be a presumption that this is improper and the Biden team should remove this individual on Day 1.”