Trump Cutting NSC Back for Wrong Reasons

A smaller staff is arguably a good idea. But not this way.

Much has been made of President Trump’s reassignment of LTC Sandy Vindman and his brother from the National Security Council staff in retaliation for the former’s testimony against the President in the impeachment investigation. While petty, it’s fully within Trump’s purview and tells us nothing new about the commander-in-chief.

What is new is that National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien is about to make drastic cuts to the NSC staff. CNN reports:

Some people with knowledge of the impending change previously said once President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial had concluded, O’Brien was expected to oust about a dozen or so officials as part of an effort to streamline the NSC, which critics charge has become too large.

O’Brien has largely been downsizing the NSC by attrition and getting staffers detailed to the council from other departments to return earlier than planned to their home agencies, but one of the sources told CNN it looks like the final phase will involve more direct firings and cuts.

“So it’s bloated. We’re going to bring it back to a size that’s manageable and efficient. And look, the folks who are there, they really need to want to serve the President,” O’Brien told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham Tuesday night.

“What I said when I came to the NSC is that I would drastically downsize it,” he added.

O’Brien said the council had “ballooned up” to 236 policy professionals in the Obama administration from about 100 during the Bush administration.

“Another week or two, I think we’ll have met our goal,” he said.

There are good arguments for cutting the NSC staff; indeed, I’ve made them.

WaPo’s Karen DeYoung had a widely-publicized report back in August 2015 titled “How the Obama White House runs foreign policy.” It established a narrative of 30-something staffers inserting themselves into the chain of command, to the outrage of cabinet officials, military commanders, and other career officials.

Around the same time, as part of a quadrennial cycle where think tanks churn out proposals hoping to shape the policy debate during Presidential election cycles and influence the next administration, both the Democratic-leaning Center for a New American Security and the nonpartisan Atlantic Council issued reports calling for NSC reform. While they differed on the particulars, both argued for a smaller staff and a mission refocused on strategic level interagency policy coordination and away from day-to-day issues and “the tyranny of the inbox.”

A smaller NSC staff is arguably a good idea, depending on how deep the cuts go, where they come, and how the remaining staff is focused. Former Obama NSC official Loren Dejonge Schulman details some questions that need to be answered in that regard.

But O’Brien’s reorganization seems to be motivated by the opposite interests of the professional critics. He’s making no bones about it: he wants to purge the staff of everyone who isn’t an enthusiastic Trump loyalist. And, in an administration which considers career professionals at State, Homeland Security, the intelligence community, and the FBI as part of a “Deep State” working to undermine the President, he’s not about to turn day-to-day operation of US foreign policy back to the departments.

Then again, it may simply not matter. All indications are that Trump tends to ignore the advice of even his hand-picked cabinet officers, much less recommendations that have percolated up through the interagency staffing process. As Stephen Hadley, National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush put it, “Presidents get the national security process they deserve.”

FILED UNDER: National Security, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    As Kori Schake…what? Where’s the rest of the sentence?

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    But…

    To quote a TV character, “As father always said, everything that comes before “but” is bullshit.” In this case, done properly for the right reasons by the right people with the right goals, yes it’s a good idea to downsize the NSC, BUT…

    None of those conditions exist here.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @CSK: Sorry–the post got cut off before I finished the edit. I was actually going to quote Kori Schake quoting Steve Hadley. Post fixed.

    @OzarkHillbilly: Right. That’s really the point of the post–as signaled (I’d hoped) by the headline and subhed. There have been calls from professionals on both sides of the aisles to cut the size of the NSS. But O’Brien is clearly doing it in the wrong way for the wrong reasons. The result would be disastrous if this President cared about getting good staffing.

    ReplyReply
  4. CSK says:

    Speaking of purging the administration of non-Trump loyalists, some Republican senators asked Trump not to fire Sondland. Trump did anyway. Regardless of what you think of Sondland, Trump canned him for the wrong reasons.

    ReplyReply
  5. Scott says:

    tells us nothing new about the commander-in-chief.

    We all may know the petty and petulent nature of this profane, godless, and corrupt President but we are finding out about his flunkies including Pompeo and Esper, the pride of the West Point Class of 86, who have provided an updated Honor Code for the Trump Age: I will lie, cheat, and steal, and punished those who won’t.

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  6. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:
    Thanks. But hasn’t Trump’s first and only criterion for employment in his administration always been abject, unquestioning loyalty to him? Besides, as he’s said on numerous occasions, he trusts his gut more than he does any expert.

    ReplyReply
  7. Teve says:

    @CSK: Everybody who supports Trump winds up humiliated.

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  8. Jay L Gischer says:

    Yeah, those darn professional civil servants. They won’t let Trump be Trump and blackmail foreign countries into helping his campaign. They probably complain when Trump tries to use the office to enhance his businesses, too.

    Off with their heads!

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  9. Teve says:

    @CSK:

    @ThePlumLine

    “Stop!” cried the GOP senators. “It will look like you took revenge!”

    “But that’s the whole point!” Trump replied. “To show that I’m willing to take revenge against anyone who exposes my corruption!”

    The senators accepted defeat. They’d tried their best!

    ReplyReply
  10. CSK says:

    @Teve:
    It’s amazing they haven’t learned this very obvious lesson. Trump screws everyone: wives, relatives, contractors, employees…

    @Teve:
    Yeah. Sigh.

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  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    I have a contrarian view. This is actually good criminal tradecraft. He’s cutting the number of potential witnesses.

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  12. Kathy says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    To quote a TV character, “As father always said, everything that comes before “but” is bullshit.”

    All generalizations are wrong, including this one.

    It may be not everything trump does is wrong, but that is the way to bet.

    ReplyReply
  13. Sleeping Dog says:

    What happened Friday was the political equivalent of one of those mob-movie montages where the don’s enemies are gunned down to the accompaniment of an operatic score.

    Max Boot

    Lines up with @Michael Reynolds: observation

    ReplyReply
  14. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Yes, but when he cuts them loose, what’s to prevent them from talking? Revenge is a two-way street.

    ReplyReply
  15. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Newbie question: is it good criminal tradecraft to do so in the open, and admitting what he’s doing?

    I know politically he can do whatever he wants. However, in a court of law would a judge be swayed by “fake news!” as an explanation?

    ReplyReply
  16. p.anderson@fuse.net says:

    @Kathy:

    I know politically he can do whatever he wants. However, in a court of law would a judge be swayed by “fake news!” as an explanation?

    Some of the Trump appointed judges, yeah. The NSA isn’t the only place loyalty to Trump matters.

    ReplyReply
  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kathy: @CSK:
    It doesn’t matter whether he’s doing it openly, the Senate ‘jury’ is corrupt, Fox News lies and #Cult45 has signed on to follow their orange Koresh to the grave. There is no longer any limit on what he can do, and he’s not someone to use that advantage subtly.

    ReplyReply
  18. Kathy says:

    @p.anderson@fuse.net:
    @Michael Reynolds:

    I’m sure a President sanders or Warren would make sure the independent judiciary picked an impartial judge to try the several criminal cases of US v Cheeto. If that fails, or if president Biden, then I’m sure NY state judges won’t be partial to the naked emperor.

    ReplyReply
  19. Gustopher says:

    While petty, it’s fully within Trump’s purview and tells us nothing new about the commander-in-chief.

    Aren’t there laws that protect whistleblowers that he is running afoul of? That would seem to take it out of his purview.

    Except for the fact that Barr has decided that all investigations into presidential candidates must have his stamp of approval, which will clearly never happen.

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  20. de stijl says:

    I play a lot of role-playing games.

    I’m enamored with Kings And Crusaders 2 right now.

    You have to cope with your vassals, and family, and your council, and religion and culture. It is fascinating. Inheritance laws have a massive effect.

    You can sack your council and reappoint yes men or women (women are disallowed from many roles unless you pass laws allowing so which is wicked hard.)

    There are plots. Manufacture a claim on the next door duchy. I now know what agnatic cognatic gavelkind means. Using marriage of your kids as a tool to acquire non-aggression pacts. Seriously, you can pledge your kids into a marriage contract when they are still toddlers; it’s very creepy. If we could get Barron into a marriage contract with Kim Jong Il’s infant daughter, many future conflicts could be avoided.

    Trump is basically sacking his council. Can he do so? Yes. Should he do so? That will play out. Undetermined.

    Build a hospital or build a school? Invest in tech or culture? Consequential choices.

    Trump is doing a renegade, villain run; a “Fear me, bitches!” run. His vassals despise him, but need him to hold on to what power they possess. So they provisionally back him.

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  21. Michael Reynolds says:

    Presidents Sanders or Warren will, if they are very lucky, have 51 Senators. They won’t be able to confirm anyone that Joe Manchin doesn’t like.

    More likely Sanders would have lost net seats in the Senate and we could even lose the House. The strong likelihood is that even if he somehow wins, the entire Sanders agenda will be dead in every single detail before he walks into the Oval. We’ll have an angry old man railing against capitalism – it’s his entire skill set – and accomplishing absolutely fuck-all.

    Our Constitution is obsolete, and there is no real way to fix it. Goobers and racists will hold veto power more or less in perpetuity, and we will slide further into political paralysis. We will do nothing on climate change but militarize the southern border. Abortion rights, gay rights, etc… will be maintained in blue states but rolled back in red states.

    If Sanders wins we’ll have four years of failure which will lead to more cynicism and more polarization. And after 4 years we’ll elect the next Mussolini wannabe. We are trapped in our own worn-out system.

    How’s that for a Sunday morning dose of happy?

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  22. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher:

    Aren’t there laws that protect whistleblowers that he is running afoul of?

    I’m not an expert in the protections afforded whistleblowers but I don’t think they apply to a political appointee (Sondland) or to moving an Army officer seconded to the NSC from the NSC staff to a lateral post at the Pentagon. A President is entitled to the ambassadors and NSC staff he wants and, while Trump’s intent is clearly venal, the reassignment of the Vindmans isn’t obviously “punishment.”

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  23. Moosebreath says:

    @Kathy:

    “I’m sure a President sanders or Warren would make sure the independent judiciary picked an impartial judge to try the several criminal cases of US v Cheeto.”

    First, Presidents don’t get a vote on which federal judges hear what cases. The best they can do is forum shop, choosing a court to file the case in where it is likeliest that the judge chosen would be not a Trump supporter.

    Second, ultimately any such case would get appealed to the Supreme Court, which votes as a whole court, and which certainly has partisan leanings.

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  24. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It’s okay to be angry guy.

    Don’t be perpetual angry guy.

    It’s stressful, and frankly, a bad look. Don’t be that guy. The crazy uncle at Thankgiving no one wants to provoke.

    Walk around outside. Look. Breathe. Smell. The world is fascinating. Beautiful.

    I sometimes disengage entirely from news, especially politics. I am not a player. I have exactly one vote. If I check out for a month others will fill my spot. Good people with strong voices.

    The best way that I’ve found to cope is to imagine how future historians will document this era.

    The worst person imaginable was elected President. We are living in interesting times.

    We are resilient and resourceful. This shall not last. We will be marked in a thousand dorky overwritten history books.

    You can be angry guy.

    Don’t be perpetually angry guy. It is a trap.

    Smoke some herb. Eat some shrooms. Drink some whiskey.

    It will all work out, and if not, our lives are short.

    ReplyReply
  25. Michael Reynolds says:

    @de stijl:
    My life is short, the lives of my trans daughter, my Asian daughter and her Hispanic boyfriend, hopefully won’t be.

    I have a Davidoff Nicaraguan robusto in one hand, gourmet coffee in the other, I’ll smoke a joint this afternoon, there’s Talisker and Four Roses in the cupboard and a brand new Mercedes in my garage.

    I’m not worried or angry for myself, I’m a well-off white male living in LA, and if I don’t like it here I can move to New Zealand. I couldn’t be much safer. But it’s my obligation as a father, as a patriot and as a human being, as a privileged person, to be angry.

    ReplyReply
  26. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Don’t be too angry too long.

    ReplyReply
  27. Joe says:

    Much has been made of President Trump’s reassignment of LTC Sandy Vindman and his brother from the National Security Council staff in retaliation for the former’s testimony against the President in the impeachment investigation. While petty, it’s fully within Trump’s purview and tells us nothing new about the commander-in-chief.

    What made it so petty is that they walked him out. I agree that the reassignment was both within Trump’s right and I have read that Vindman had already cleared his personal things from his office. Telling him not to come back on Monday would have been quite adequate. Walking him out was yet another petty dick move.

    ReplyReply
  28. Kathy says:

    @Moosebreath:

    First, Presidents don’t get a vote on which federal judges hear what cases.

    The president will not be involved in this. Not even a little. They’ll have no opinion on the matter, save that no one is above the law, and they trust the independent judiciary to be fair and impartial.

    Besides, there are no norms left any more. Didn’t you hear? Nancy Pelosi tore up a piece of paper!

    Second, ultimately any such case would get appealed to the Supreme Court, which votes as a whole court, and which certainly has partisan leanings.

    True. But it matters only a little whether El Cheeto spends his last few years miserable in prison, or miserable trying to stay out of prison.

    ReplyReply
  29. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kathy:

    All generalizations are wrong, including this one.

    In my experience, this one is generally correct. But you get the pedant of the day award anyway.

    ReplyReply
  30. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Joe:

    Walking him out was yet another petty dick move.

    It’s a petty dick move, but I suspect it’s SOP for the NSC.

    ReplyReply
  31. reid says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Why would it be SOP…? Being walked out is generally associated with loss of trust for some reason, like losing your security clearance.

    ReplyReply
  32. Michael Reynolds says:

    @de stijl:
    Oh, don’t worry, my friend, it won’t be stress that kills me. I find lack of stress stressful. When life isn’t stressful enough, I brew some up fresh and shoot it straight into an artery.

    ReplyReply
  33. Moosebreath says:

    @Kathy:

    “The president will not be involved in this. Not even a little.”

    So when @Kathy: said:

    “I’m sure a President sanders or Warren would make sure the independent judiciary picked an impartial judge to try the several criminal cases of US v Cheeto.”

    it meant what exactly? You seem to be calling for Shrodinger’s judge, who is both picked and not picked by the President.

    ReplyReply
  34. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    We are different types.

    I avoid stress. I cannot imagine welcoming more stress into my life by choice. Granted, I have anxiety and avoidance issues.

    I like talking with you. They are enriching exchanges. We have different default settings, but shared interests.

    I have a theory that wearing headphones makes you invisible and immune to any threat. You literally cannot talk me out of that theory because I need it to be true.

    A hoodie also helps.

    ReplyReply
  35. Kathy says:

    @Moosebreath:

    Not so anyone can prove it.

    ReplyReply
  36. DrDaveT says:

    @de stijl:

    I play a lot of role-playing games.

    Ever play anything from Atomic Sock Monkey?

    ReplyReply
  37. Michael Reynolds says:

    @de stijl:
    As do I. I envy the role music plays in your life. I wish I’d spent more energy on that.

    At some point I realized I live just like I write: without a plan, making it up, hoping it will somehow come together, high on the uncertainty. And as the jumper was heard to say as he passed the 50th floor of the Empire State Building, “So far, so good.”

    ReplyReply
  38. rachel says:

    @Joe:

    Walking him out was yet another petty dick move.

    Totally. However, it is the sort of petty dick move that makes me wonder how much support he’s likely to get from the military if he tries to call off the elections or formally crown himself dictator. I mean, half of them already disapproved of him, and now this?

    So there’s that.

    ReplyReply
  39. Never Was So Much Owed by So Many To So Few says:

    Of course it makes sense to purge the NSC, what became clear to me is that Trump wants to narrow the official channel’s bandwidth to his loyalist in order to align his unofficial official channel of Rudy Giuliani and his Goon of The Month flunkies to shake down the whims of Trump and his Russian/Ukranian oligarchs. LTC Vindman remains a great patriot. The nonsensical statements that Vindman would face some type of legal UCMJ action is simply ridiculous both in fact and law. Following Trump’s illegal orders is simply unenforceable. Funny how when a LTC covers up for a US President (Reagan) and self deals as well (North) he’s a hero, and in this instance a real hero on this issue LTC Vindman is vilified for defending the US Constitution? Not shocking, rather par for Trumpworld.

    ReplyReply
  40. de stijl says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I have not. Pitch me, I am open.

    ReplyReply
  41. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Music makes me feel whole. Maybe wholer is the more precise word.

    Opting out worked for me.

    I am more me now.

    ReplyReply

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