Trump Reorganizes, Politicizes National Security Council

Steve Bannon is in. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Director of National Intelligence are out. Sort of.


national-security-council-johnson

Lost in yesterday’s understandable outrage over President Trump’s executive order banning travel from several predominantly Muslim countries—which was, quite predictably, stopped by the courts—was a rather astounding reorganization of the National Security Council.  It is nowhere to be found on the main page of the New York Times website and one has to scroll way down the page of the Washington Post website to see the story as I type this at 6:20 am.  Yet it is likely to have more far-reaching consequences.

Even the WaPo story gives the news second billing in both the headline (“Trump orders ISIS plan, talks with Putin and gives Bannon national security role“) and the story:

President Trump on Saturday ordered the Pentagon to devise a strategy to defeat the Islamic State and restructured the National Security Council to include his controversial top political adviser as he forged a partnership with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin in their first official phone call.

[SEVERAL PARAGRAPHS REDACTED]

Counseling Trump in the effort will be Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist whose influence inside the administration is expanding far beyond politics. In a separate presidential memo, Trump reorganized the National Security Council to, along with other changes, give Bannon a regular seat on the principals committee — the meetings of the most senior national security officials, including the secretaries of defense and state.

That memo also states that the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will sit on the principals committee only when the issues to be discussed pertain to their “responsibilities and expertise.” In the previous two administrations, both were included as regular attendees.

The White House thinks the changes will make the NSC more adaptive to modern threats. Trump said the changes would bring “a lot of efficiency and, I think, a lot of additional safety.”

The changes affirm the ascent of Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart, a conservative website that is popular with white nationalists, who has emerged as Trump’s political consigliere and the keeper of the president’s populist flame.

Putting Bannon on the NSC and its Principals Committee is being portrayed in some circles as an unprecedented politicization of the interagency process. Given that Ben Rhodes, a partisan operative and speeechwriter with no education or training in the trade,  was the Deputy National Security Advisor and arguably the most important policy advisor to President Obama, I can’t get too worked up about that. Bannon having a key foreign policy role is problematic because Bannon is a malevolent actor with no understanding of global affairs, not because he doesn’t have a traditional national security billet. And, frankly, if Bannon is going to be one of the voices Trump most listens to, he may as well be in the room when people who know what they’re talking about are discussing the issues; he might learn something.

More problematic is that Trump has removed the Chairman and the DNI from the normal rotation. This is so unusual that I was under the impression that it was illegal. It is not. While the Goldwater-Nichols act of 1986 made the Chairman a statutory advisor to the NSC and the Homeland Security Act of 2002 created the DNI and made him a statutory advisor—and while every president has included them in both the NSC and Principals Committee structure—the law is quite clear that their attendance is optional “and subject to the direction of the President.”

While legal, though, this strikes me as a bad idea. How bad, of course, depends on how it operates in practice. According to the Executive Order,  ”The Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as statutory advisers to the NSC, shall also attend NSC meetings.” The NSC, in this sense, means meetings chaired by the President himself.  At Principals Committee meetings—chaired either by the National Security Advisor or the Homeland Security Advisor—the new order provides “The Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff shall attend where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” If there are frequent Principals Committee meetings in which the issues under discussion don’t implicate the U.S. armed forces, there’s no obvious reason for the chairman to attend those; indeed, it’s likely a better use of his time to stay at the Pentagon or be out circulating with the operating forces. Ditto the DNI.

Given the way in which the first eight days of the Trump presidency has unfolded, however, this smacks of intentionally removing divergent opinions shaped by real experience in global affairs from the room. This is somewhat mitigated by having a Secretary of Defense who only recently retired as a four-star Marine general. Still, the Chairman is designated by law as the principal military advisor to the President and the NSC; it’s a lot easier to serve that function if you’re in the room and privy to all the conversations.

FILED UNDER: General
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. Lit3Bolt says:

    Along with all the other “obvious” things pointed out about Trump, can the national security professional class start to take seriously that these men and this administration are compromised by foreign agents? Or will they meekly submit to being purged from the government and military and being replaced by political cronies?

  2. ” Bannon having a key foreign policy role is problematic because Bannon is a malevolent actor with no understanding of global affairs, not because he doesn’t have a traditional national security billet. And, frankly, if Bannon is going to be one of the voices Trump most listens to, he may as well be in the room when people who know what they’re talking about are discussing the issues; he might learn something.”

    Somehow, I find that unlikely.

  3. Jay L. Gischer says:

    I’m wondering if this isn’t related to Trump’s love of secrecy and that the people removed are people he can’t force to sign a personal NDA.

  4. I am unaware of the law on this issue, but I’d be surprised if any government employee — and that includes White House Staff — can be forced to sign the kind of non-disclosure agreement you’re talking about. The most that can be done that I’m aware of is that they have a continuing duty not to reveal classified information they are exposed to as part of their official duties, but that is a different matter.

  5. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Jay L. Gischer:

    IMO it has more to do with his dislike of dissent in any form, coupled with the internecine warfare that’s going on within the West Wing.

    To me, this smacks of something – the lackeys who have always surrounded Trump jockeying for influence & favor at the expense of their peers – that anyone who has spent time around Trump or worked with him for any length of time (as I have) would find all too familiar.

    Short version: IMO this is Bannon trying to undermine Priebus (and other competitors) in order to solidify his own position & influence. I have few doubts that Bannon suggested this and convinced the easily manipulated Trump that it’s a good idea.

  6. CSK says:

    I’m quite curious about the degree to which Bannon controls Trump. And is he engaged in a tug-of-war with Ivanka for primacy?

  7. dxq says:

    from a guy who wrote a book on the NSC:

    David RothkopfVerified account
    ‏@djrothkopf

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    I’ve studied NSC my entire adult life. Putting Bannon on it and making DNI and Joint Chiefs optional is lunacy. Shows zero comprehension.

  8. James Pearce says:

    The changes affirm the ascent of Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart, a conservative website that is popular with white nationalists, who has emerged as Trump’s political consigliere and the keeper of the president’s populist flame.

    It’s absolutely absurd that Trump listens to this guy. May Team Trump’s exuberance run face first into reality sooner than usual…

  9. dxq says:

    “I’m a Leninist,” Steve Bannon told a writer for The Daily Beast, in late 2013. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”*

    -new yorker

  10. Stormy Dragon says:

    the law is quite clear that their attendance is optional “and subject to the direction of the President.”

    This is probably a separation of powers issue. Congress likely doesn’t have the power to make the President attend meetings with particular people. Although in this case he’s stupid to not be including them of his own accord.

  11. bill says:

    i like bannon’s slash at the nyt- it’s gonna be a fun 4-8yrs ! calling them out for their bias and shameless, slanted reporting was nice. the followup reports on what he said were more evidence of their lame reporting.
    here’s a taste of what he said-

    “media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for awhile

    here’s what the bulk of them report-

    Steve Bannon says media should ‘keep its mouth shut

    see the dif?

    apologies for being somewhat off topic- i just don’t think this would ever make the cut in here.

  12. bk says:

    @bill: You mean slanted against Hillary, right?

  13. James Pearce says:

    @bill:

    here’s a taste of what he said-

    “media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for awhile

    here’s what the bulk of them report-

    Steve Bannon says media should ‘keep its mouth shut

    Oooh, those crooked media people. They won’t include all of the childish stupidity in the presidential adviser’s rant.

  14. Mr. Bluster says:

    media bill the pill should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its his mouth shut and just listen for awhile.”

    I am sure bill can realize the benefits of American citizens kow-towing to Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda Bannon and BE SILENT on these matters.

    Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.
    Joseph Goebbels

  15. michael reynolds says:

    The OTB Trumpies have fallen away, one by one. Now we’re down to the dumbest of the dumb: bill, Bandit and Guarneri.

  16. gVOR08 says:

    This morning I saw a second hand report that Bannon made the decision yesterday to include green card holders in the immigration ban, perhaps hoping to generate a crisis that would energize the base. NYT now reports that on Meet the Press this morning Priebus said green card holders would be exempt. Interesting times.

    As of last night, a grand total of five GOP Reps or Sens had spoken out against the immigration ban, not including Ryan or McConnell. Are a few tax cuts worth this?

  17. CSK says:

    @gVOR08:

    I also read that Bannon unilaterally made the decision to expand the original EO to include green card holders.

    So who the hell is in charge? Bannon? God help us.

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @bill: It’s gonna be fun watching you twist yourself into knots of logic as you justify the removal of President Trump from office after only 6 months on the job based on facts you were citing long before he was elected.

  19. Pch101 says:

    I’m waiting for German to become our official language.

  20. Pch101 says:

    @gVOR08:

    The executive order makes a specific reference to 8 USC 1187, which pertains to visa holders.

    Green card holders are permanent residents. Since they aren’t traveling here on visas, this should not apply to them.

    Of course, Bannon doesn’t care about any of that. These guys are pathological liars to the core.

  21. michael reynolds says:

    In the meantime, something practical we can all do right now from the comforts of our laptops and phones:

    Join the ACLU as a monthly donor.

    Delete Uber, switch to Lyft. Uber tried to break the taxi strike at JFK, while Lyft did not, and then donated a million to the ACLU.

    Download the extremely practical guide to resistance at Indivisible.

  22. dxq says:

    pch, i just read a lawyer say that it looked like the product of an L1 on a lunch break. so poorly written you couldn’t be sure what a few parts really say.

  23. al-Ameda says:

    @bill:
    Re: Steve Bannon:

    here’s a taste of what he said-
    “media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for awhile
    here’s what the bulk of them report-
    Steve Bannon says media should ‘keep its mouth shut’
    see the dif?

    The difference is that you actually see an important difference. This is exactly what Steve Bannon and his fellow ‘my way or the highway’ alt.right White Nationalists bring to the table.

    National Security, evidently is so important that Trump is appointing a toxic know-nothing like Bannon to be an NSA.

  24. Terrye Cravens says:

    Every day Trump does or says something screwy. I am not sure if he is incompetent or if he is trying to create chaos and confusion. Neither of which is inspiring.

  25. JohnMcC says:

    Dr Joyner, I noticed the alteration in the content of the Principals Committee a couple of hours after you did and from the same source and — I will admit — every red light on my dashboard lit up.

    I was curious to know if you’d comment on this. Partly because I’m sure it has occurred to you that blogging on the topic of the new administration might not be your best career move. So, speaking for myself and I bet several others here who might have thought the same thing, thank you. Well played. Salute to you.

    The end result of your explanation seems to be that ‘it won’t matter much — unless it does’.

    I don’t find that encouraging.

  26. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @CSK:

    Ivanka, Kushner and Priebus, in that order.

  27. michael reynolds says:

    @JohnMcC:
    Hear, hear.

    There are damned few Republicans showing any adherence to principle. James Joyner is a rare example of integrity.

  28. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Join the ACLU as a monthly donor.

    I had cancelled my membership after Citizens United, and the ACLU’s support of that, but I think it is high time to restart.

  29. Hal_10000 says:

    @CSK:

    This is indeed one of the most disturbing parts of the entire visa ban fiasco. It indicates that the crazies (Bannon, Miller, Flynn) are in charge, not the adults (Perry, Mattis, etc.)

    These guys are going to get us into a war before they’re done.

  30. SKI says:

    As additional evidence of Bannon’s white nationalist, antisemitic mindset, it has also come to light that the exclusion of Jews or antisemitism from Trump’s statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day was intentional and at Bannon’s direction/suggestion because the mention of Jews might take away from all the other victims of the Holocaust.

    I’ll be more charitable than they would be and not suggest that the statement in Trump’s message that “In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good.” would seem to be a statement of support for Naziism as the powers of good as the Allies did ultimately win…

  31. Argon says:

    @gVOR08:

    As of last night, a grand total of five GOP Reps or Sens had spoken out against the immigration ban, not including Ryan or McConnell. Are a few tax cuts worth this?

    What isn’t worth a tax cut in Ryan’s mind? Massive national debt? Nope. Unfinanced wars? Nope. People going without health care? Hahahaha. That just transfers wealth to Wall St. faster.

  32. Argon says:

    Also… Too bad Christie got shut out of the Trump sphere of influence. I’m sure he wouldn’t have backed down from taking a principled stand.

    Hahahahahaha! Just kidding.

  33. Scott says:

    @dxq: And with the recent news that Trump wants to put some type of appointee into every agency sounds exactly like a Soviet-style political officer that could second guess every decision by the people in charge.

    Add science denialism which is Lysenkoism reborn.

  34. Scott says:

    @CSK:

    I also read that Bannon unilaterally made the decision to expand the original EO to include green card holders.

    At some point, probably real soon, the bureaucracy will realize that Bannon has no operational authority to order anything.

    Also, if things go truly bad, then the institutions will go into a mode called “malicious obedience”. That is following the rules so precisely that nothing gets done or accomplished. Failure follows soon after.

  35. CSK says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    With Bannon heading the pack, I assume.

    @Hal_10000:

    I’m afraid so.

  36. Ben Wolf says:

    @James Joyner

    Creating chaos to mask his real goals is a hallmark of Trump’s life in business. We may be seeing an effort to generate “outrage fatigue.”

  37. wr says:

    @bill: Steve Bannon also ordered that the proclamation of Holocaust Remembrance Day not mentions Jews, because he is a loathesome Nazi pig. No wonder you adore him.

  38. Gustopher says:

    @Ben Wolf: Except, the left is actually turning out to protest at a moment’s notice. A lot of people I know who were depressed by the election and had basically given up were energized by the pussy hat march, and now the airport protests. They are calling their senators and representatives for the first time ever.

    Trump isn’t creating outrage fatigue, he is energizing his opposition.

  39. Guarneri says:

    @michael reynolds:

    No, it just gets old reading the rants of the deranged.

  40. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @CSK:

    With Bannon heading the pack, I assume.

    With this guy, it changes from day to day. He has always liked to keep his underlings at war with each other, perpetually afraid of both being shoved out and of being displaced in the pecking order. IMO Bannon is trying to undermine Priebus, Kushner is trying to undermine Bannon and Priebus, Priebus is discovering that this isn’t what he signed up for, Conway is stuck on the second floor while soldiering on like a demented acolyte, and Ivanka has the familial “trump” card which none of the others possess. Bannon’s greatest enemies are twofold – he is pressing policies which will threaten the one thing that Trump treasures the most – his image – and his true greatest rival (Kushner) is married to Trump’s daughter.

    I remain convinced that Priebus is there for two reasons – it allows Trump to punish an enemy by putting him into a subservient role, and it was probably a lame effort to take some of the stink off of Bannon’s appointment.

    The net result is that he’s surrounded by people whose judgment he can’t depend on – the situation creates – not unlike sovereigns of old – a situation where you can never be sure whose best interests those around you have at heart. In Trump’s case, it is how someone of mediocre talent prevents himself from being upstaged. Not a bad plan when you’re a narcissist running a private enterprise and your primary goal is notoriety, but it’s a disastrous way to run a country.

  41. Lit3Bolt says:

    @Guarneri:

    More like you retreated to your safe spaces.

  42. SC_Birdflyte says:

    On a different, but related track: the WSJ has a column by Philip Howard in today’s edition arguing that civil service laws violate the Constitution, because Article II explicitly mentions only the executive power vested in the President. If that’s the case, why not abolish all the Cabinet departments and let the Mango Messiah do all that work himself?