2017 ‘hit lists’ show that team Trump has long eyed political opponents


By Vicky Ward and Vivian Salama

Just months into his presidency, a small circle of senior White House advisers met with Donald Trump about a carefully curated list containing the names of dozens of perceived political opponents, particularly leakers, working inside the government.

A detailed account of the meeting was revealed for the first time to CNN by two former senior administration officials, who said that the April 2017 gathering included then senior strategist Steve Bannon and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

After being shown the list, the President told McMaster to deal with it, according to one of the officials.

McMaster and Bannon walked away from the meeting with different interpretations of Trump’s instructions, according to the two former officials and two other former senior officials in the President’s orbit who were briefed on the conversation.

Three of the officials told CNN that Bannon understood Trump wanted people fired, while the fourth said that McMaster believed the President’s direction was to deal with leaks in a systematic fashion, rather than a mass firing.

The political plotting in the early days of Trump’s presidency provides a window into a three-year effort by Trump and his loyalists to identify and expunge suspected “deep state” opponents from the White House and in some cases other parts of the government, a move that was kept at bay until recent weeks.

Removing government officials seen as disloyal to the President has unfolded in earnest since Trump was impeached but not removed from office and there are no signs the purges will let up.

The President expressed in public remarks last Saturday that he’s getting rid of bad people in government who are “not people that love our country.”

In recent weeks, Trump has expressed to aides that he wants fewer people working for him at the White House and only those identified as loyalists to hold key positions in his administration, leading to a fresh batch of lists from allies, the existence of which was first reported by Axios.

The existence of “deep state” lists in the early days of Trump’s presidency was widely talked about in the halls of the National Security Council and the State Department, according to multiple former White House officials, although several officials named on the list tell CNN they didn’t know that any such list really existed or that they were on it. The “deep state” refers to a right-wing belief that certain members of the federal bureaucracy are actively undermining the Trump presidency.

One contributor to the list that was collated and frequently updated in early 2017 was former NSC official and former Trump campaign aide Rich Higgins. He told CNN in an exclusive interview recently that from the beginning of his tenure he was convinced that leaks of minutes of highly classified meetings were from holdovers of the Obama administration and he suspected widespread resistance to some of the administration efforts.

Higgins is not involved in the current lists and does not have a current connection to the White House. The White House did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Bannon and McMaster declined to comment for this story.

The ‘hit list’ squad

Higgins, 45, a former Pentagon official who consulted for the Trump campaign in the 2016 election as a counterterrorism adviser, joined the NSC in February 2017 as director of strategic planning.

Higgins told CNN he arrived to find two senior NSC directors and fellow Trump appointees, Col. Derek Harvey and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, regularly meeting over coffee or gathering in their offices and joined them in a mission to find alleged leakers and those perceived as resistant to the Trump administration’s policies.

Two former senior White House officials told CNN they remembered seeing Harvey and Cohen-Watnick frequently meeting with Bannon in Bannon’s office and the duo made them aware they were collating lists of people they believed were disloyal. One former senior administration official described the group as “the Hardy Boys.”

Multiple senior administration officials told CNN that in early spring of 2017, Bannon gave a list of names of suspected leakers to Trump while McMaster was traveling.

McMaster became aware that Bannon wanted them fired and, irate, phoned then-White House chief counsel Don McGahn that night to complain and ask if what they were doing was legal, according to two sources. McGahn declined to comment for this story.

Higgins says that over the course of several months, the group worked off other similar lists that were circulating and created new versions that contained roughly four dozen people who they felt were politically opposed to Trump, including Obama appointees, those detailed to the White House and “Never Trumpers.” The list shrank or expanded in the following months depending on normal staff rotation, Higgins said.

CNN has obtained three of the lists that Higgins says the group collated and discussed. One is titled “Holdovers” and is dated July 2017. Another is titled “Personnel Policy Decisions,” with a subhead “Trump Administration NSC Appointments Not supporting Potus Vision and Expressed Intent.” It has seven names on it, along with their titles and a category marked “Justification.”

A third list, dated June 2017, has 39 names on it that included Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ current Middle East adviser Robert Malley, who left the administration when Trump took office, the former special envoy on ISIS Brett McGurk, and the person the White House believes to be the Ukraine whistleblower. When asked why Malley was on the list, Higgins told CNN, “We left him on by mistake.”

Malley and McGurk declined to comment for this story. Mark Zaid, the former attorney for the whistleblower, told CNN that he’s unable to comment. Amy Jeffress, the lawyer at Arnold & Porter now representing the whistleblower, would not comment on the matter to CNN after the news organization published the article.

McMaster not having it

Higgins says the group was aware that McMaster would not approve of what they were doing.

In mid-April, Higgins says, he was asked to get the most current list to Bannon. According to Higgins, Bannon told him he showed the list to Trump on April 17, 2017, and the President had demanded McMaster take action.

When nothing happened, Higgins says, he wrote a memo that was reported on by The Atlantic titled “Potus and Political Warfare,” which Higgins says he then printed out, with the idea of having a group discussion among like-minded individuals.

“The memo was my estimate of the situation, explanatory but not certain. I wanted to generate discussion and awareness around me,” he told CNN.

The seven-page memo warned of threats from “globalist corporatists & bankers” and “Islamists,” as well as the “deep state.” It said the “narrative” that “Russia hacked the election” was “illegitimate” and was a deliberate effort to destroy Trump’s agenda.

“Recognizing in candidate Trump an existential threat to cultural Marxist memes that dominate the prevailing cultural narrative, those that benefit recognized the threat he poses and see his destruction,” it reads.

“I didn’t write it by myself,” Higgins told CNN, adding that there were various people who were on the NSC staff then. “And I didn’t write it in one sitting. It was the product of hours of conversations.”

Higgins says he never learned if the President read his memo. But Higgins says Bannon told him that his efforts were discovered — and not appreciated by McMaster, who stood up at an NSC town hall on July 13 and told staff that “there’s no such thing as a hold-over,” Bloomberg reported.

Higgins says that on July 18, he was summoned to the NSC general counsel’s office and asked if he had written the memo. He said, “Yes.” On July 21, McMaster’s deputy, Ricky Waddell, told Higgins to resign, according to Higgins. Waddell did not respond to several requests for comment.

Two weeks later, around the end of July, CNN reported that both Harvey and Cohen-Watnick left the NSC under circumstances that were not clear. Higgins says the two were told to go. On August 18, Bannon also left the White House.

Harvey declined to comment for this story. A spokesperson for Cohen-Watnick told CNN: “At no time was Ezra involved in creating any political ‘enemies’ list within the Trump NSC, nor was he ‘fired’ from his position in the White House.”

Higgins went on to become a senior fellow at Unconstrained Analytics, a nonprofit think tank. In response to the impeachment, he recently wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal headlined, “The White House Fired Me for My Loyalty.”

Of the latest lists that have been drawn up by the President’s allies and of Trump’s vicious reaction to political enemies, Higgins told CNN, “It’s a positive development for the administration. Any president, not just this one, deserves to have people who are supportive of his general policy positions around him.”

CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to reflect the whistleblower’s current attorney.