Julio Cortez / AP

Immediate Sidelining of Trump Burrower by Biden Administration Was Appropriate, IG Finds

The official's hiring by the National Security Agency had generated significant concern, but a watchdog says the decision was above board.

The 11th hour conversion of a Trump political appointee into a high-ranking career position at the National Security Agency was appropriate, according to the Defense Department’s inspector general, as was the decision to sideline the employee immediately after President Biden took the oath of office on January 20. 

NSA's decision to hire Michael Ellis had generated widespread attention and a slew of lawmakers inquired about its propriety both in the waning months of the Trump administration and during a congressional hearing after Biden took office. Ellis served as deputy assistant to President Trump and senior director for intelligence programs in November 2020, when he was hired to serve as NSA’s general counsel. Ellis, who has faced allegations of retaliating against employees connected to President Trump’s impeachment, served in the role for just days before the NSA director placed him on administrative leave during President Biden’s inauguration. 

Ellis’ selection went through three layers of review and all hiring panelists placed him in the top three of the 29 qualified candidates, the Defense IG report released on Thursday found. The panelists all told the IG they did not face any pressure from the Trump administration to hire Ellis and the IG concluded there was “no improper influence” in his selection. 

His actual appointment was delayed, however, as Paul Nakasone, NSA’s director, said he would wait for the results of an outstanding IG review of the hiring process. It was at that point that acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller intervened, instructing Nakasone to allow Ellis to start his job the next day. Ellis started his job, but days later, on Jan. 20, after President Biden was sworn into office, Nakasone placed Ellis on administrative leave pending the results of an NSA probe into Ellis’ handling of classified information. Nakasone also pointed to the IG review. 

The IG concluded in its report that its review alone was not reason enough to place Ellis on administrative leave, but the other inquiry “was a sufficient reason” to do so. 

Normally, the conversion of all political appointees—as Ellis was at the White House—into civil servants for career positions—as Ellis’ new job at NSA was—requires sign-off by the Office of Personnel Management. That process is designed to prevent an outgoing administration from “burrowing” its political appointees into agencies after its successor takes office. In Ellis’ case, however, OPM declined to review the hiring, saying it does not need to do so for NSA positions. 

Nakasone retained his doubts that everything was above board, later telling the IG he was not sure if he was “doing what’s right by the department and the agency” by hiring Ellis and questioned whether “the merit-based thing is truly good to go.” Paul Ney, then the general counsel at the Pentagon, told Nakasone in an email he was “inappropriately injecting partisan politics into this merit systems process.” It was then that Miller directed Nakasone to hire Ellis, and Nakasone complied. 

The NSA director subsequently placed Ellis on administrative leave, telling the IG of his thinking at the time, “We have concerns about his clearance. We have concerns about merit. We have concerns about an ongoing inquiry by the DoD IG.” 

After three months on administrative leave, Ellis resigned, saying there was “no sign that NSA will attempt to resolve the issue.” 

The IG did not make a determination on the merits of the allegations against Ellis, which concerned making copies of a classified document for individuals not authorized to see it and for withholding another classified document that officials were trying to take back. It said, however, the allegations merited Ellis’ placement on administrative leave. The IG also recommended that Defense continue its probe into those allegations and determine what further actions to take. The auditors also advised Pentagon officials to ask OPM to rethink its policy to not review the hiring of political appointees at NSA and other intelligence agencies.