• The Star Staff

Trump NSA appointee who was sworn in Tuesday has been placed on leave

By Julian E. Barnes

The Biden administration Wednesday put Michael Ellis, a Trump loyalist who was sworn in Tuesday as the top lawyer for the National Security Agency, on administrative leave, a U.S. official said Wednesday.

Ellis’ last-minute appointment was ordered over the weekend by Christopher Miller, then the acting defense secretary, prompting Speaker Nancy Pelosi to call for an inspector general investigation of his selection and request that the Pentagon stop his swearing-in.

The Trump administration, not surprisingly, ignored Pelosi, and Ellis began work Tuesday. But his work at the National Security Agency lasted less than two full days.

He will remain on administrative leave while his hiring is investigated by the Pentagon’s inspector general.

Ellis’ removal was reported earlier on Twitter by CBS News.

Ellis was a former staff member for Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, and an early member of the Trump administration. He was involved in several high-profile matters, including providing intelligence to Nunes and putting the reconstructed transcript of President Donald Trump’s call with his Ukrainian counterpart in a highly classified computer system.

In November, the Pentagon selected Ellis, then an official on the National Security Agency’s staff, to become its general counsel, a Civil Service job that does not end with the administration. Trump administration officials had asked the Pentagon’s top lawyer to choose Ellis, according to people briefed on the process.

Myriad federal rules are in place to try to prevent political appointees from taking permanent Civil Service roles, a practice derisively referred to as “burrowing.” Pelosi accused Miller of helping Ellis burrow in.

But he was not immediately installed while his hiring was reviewed by the Office of Personnel Management, and he applied for a new security clearance. That delay frustrated Miller, prompting him to order that Ellis be sworn in.

After the National Security Agency announced Sunday that it would comply with Miller’s order, Pelosi and other officials called foul.

People familiar with the hiring process said that while Ellis, a Yale-trained lawyer, was a finalist, he did not have the highest score, and that a career official should have been selected for the job.

Ellis will be difficult to fire, although an inspector general investigation into his appointment could make his removal — or resignation — possible.

However, even if Ellis’ appointment passes muster with the inspector general, former officials said that the Biden administration would not have to allow him back into the National Security Agency job. He can be reassigned to a variety of legal posts within the Defense Department, such as reviewing contracts with defense companies or overseeing military construction agreements in far-flung bases.

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