Weeks after they hired a controversial former Trump national security aide with ties to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), top executives at the tech company Oracle made substantial donations to Nunes’ 2018 re-election campaign.
The donations, which totalled nearly $35,000 came from five executives, several of whom gave so much that they surpassed the legal limit and had to be refunded. What made the donations stand out, however, was not the size of them—$35,000 was a relatively small amount considering the more than $1.2 million that Nunes has raised so far this cycle. It was the timing of the giving.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who worked as a top White House intelligence aide linked to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, joined Oracle just weeks before its executives began writing checks to Nunes. Cohen-Watnick had arrived at the company under a cloud of controversy. During his time in the administration, New York Times had identified him as having provided Nunes with reports that showed former National Security Adviser Susan Rice had requested the unmasking of several Trump aides listed in classified documents. Subsequent reports by the Washington Post and the Associated Press called Watnick’s role into question, depicting him as the internal source of reports that were passed on to Nunes by others in the White House. That disclosure resulted in an ethics investigation into Nunes, who was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.
The “unmasking” scandal turned out to be vastly overstated. And it raised additional questions about Cohen-Watnick’s qualifications for the job. He ultimately was let go from the administration in August as part of a staff cleansing by Flynn’s successor, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
News that Oracle had hired Cohen-Watnick in its Washington DC office came in September. In early and mid-October, Oracle’s top officials began giving to Nunes. Edward Lloyd Screven, the company’s chief corporate architect, wrote two checks to the congressman for $2,700 each that month. On October 16, Kenneth Glueck, a senior vice president, wrote two checks to Nunes for $2,700 each. That same day, Safra Catz, Oracle’s president, wrote a check to Nunes for $2,500. In late November, she wrote three more worth $5,200 (she was later refunded $2,500). Mark Hurd, CEO, would donate $5,400 in late November as well. So too would Oracle’s billionaire chairman and CTO Larry Ellison. He had $2,700 of his $8,100 in contributions refunded.
Oracle is a Republican outlier in Silicon Valley, and its executives’ right-leaning politics (and political contributions) present opportunities in Trump’s Washington unavailable to competitors like Amazon, a frequent target of Trump’s ire. Catz and Hurd are particularly close to the Trump administration, having both advised his transition team. They’ve also enjoyed personal access to high-level Trump administration officials—most notably McMaster. Catz dined with him in July, a dinner over which the National Security Adviser reportedly called President Donald Trump an “idiot” and a “dope.” But neither Catz nor any of the other Oracle executives who gave to Nunes had donated to the the congressman before. Nunes does not represent the district where Oracle is headquartered.
The congressman does have influence over legislation involving government surveillance law, on which Oracle has spent a fair amount of money lobbying, including in the last quarter of 2017. Oracle has gone out of its way in the past to praise Nunes and his Democratic counterpart on the House Intelligence Committee, California Rep. Adam Schiff, for their handling of cybersecurity issues. The company’s political action committee has donated to both congressmen. It would be slightly more than a month after the donations were made that Congress began seriously considering whether to extend, repeal or reform Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
But these five Oracle executives have not personally donated to Schiff this cycle or, for that matter, the chairmen or ranking members of the Senate Judiciary or Intelligence committees, all of whom would have played an outsized role in that debate over the 702 program as well. Indeed, for all but one of these executives, Nunes has been the only House member to whom they have donated this current cycle.
Oracle representatives did not return a request for comment. A source who works with the company said they were unaware of any fundraiser that would have been held by Nunes, at which the executives would have appeared.