FPI Bulletin: Bannon to Play Key Role on National Security Council

February 8, 2017

Confusion about the role and membership of the National Security Council (NSC) has proliferated following the president’s decision to assign a high-profile role on the NSC to his chief political strategist, Steve Bannon.  No president has given such a prominent role to a political advisor, yet Bannon’s elevation does build on precedents set by the previous administration. Leading newspapers have reported that Trump also demoted the leaders of the Armed Forces and intelligence community, yet their status only reverted to what it was under George W. Bush. Nonetheless, it is a mistake to further politicize the NSC, rather than working to restore its reputation for non-partisan deliberations.

The Status of Military and Intelligence Advisers

The alleged demotion of military and intelligence leaders created the impression that President Trump had chosen to elevate Steve Bannon at the expense of non-partisan professionals. Upon closer examination, it seems the changes are not related. As statutory advisers to the NSC, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence must be included in meetings of the Council. Trump’s executive order acknowledges as much. However, his order no longer lists the Chairman and Director as “regular attendees” of the Principals Committee (PC), a Cabinet-level body which is different from the Council itself in two significant ways. First, the PC does not include the president, so that it can conduct essential business when he is not available. Second, whereas the role and membership of the NSC are governed by law, the PC is a discretionary body over which the president exercises complete control. According to Trump’s directive, the Chairman and Director will attend PC meetings when “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.”

Facing an immediate barrage of criticism, White House spokesman Sean Spicer described as “utter nonsense” the idea that the Chairman and Director were being “downgraded or removed.” After the changes were announced, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that pushing out the Chairman and Director would be a “big mistake” since their judgement and experience is exceptionally valuable. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said he was worried about the changes because the Chairman is “the one person who is indispensable” on the NSC.

The modified roles of the Chairman and the Director may not, however, be a cause for concern since Trump’s executive order simply restores the status quo from the Bush era. In fact, the relevant language in Trump’s executive order is borrowed word for word from the language of the Bush order from 2001. John Bellinger, who served as legal adviser to the NSC from 2001-2005, also observed that there may be a practical reason for reverting to the Bush era precedent. Since there is a single Principals Committee subordinate to both the NSC and the Homeland Security Council, “it may not be necessary or appropriate to invite the DNI and C/JCS to PCs concerning certain homeland security issues.” Looking ahead, it should quickly become apparent whether the Chairman and Director are excluded from any meetings of the PC that focus on national security. If so, there would be every reason to demand a justification for marginalizing the Armed Forces and intelligence community.

Unusually, some influential journalists have offered scathing criticism of how their colleagues have reported on the modification of the Chairman and Director’s roles. Jackson Diehl, the deputy editorial page editor for the Washington Post, criticized both his own paper and the New York Times for “mis-coverage” that makes the media “look less credible on the real Trump transgressions when they, inadvertently or otherwise, report the routine as scandalous.”

Partisan Politics and National Security

The NSC and the Principals Committee serve as critical venues for deliberation that is insulated from partisan politics. Ultimately, political considerations weigh upon every president’s key decisions, yet there still needs to be a forum where politics are cast aside. This means that it would be a mistake either to politicize the NSC or to marginalize the Council entirely.     

In recent years, President George W. Bush set the standard for depoliticizing the NSC. His former chief of staff reported that Bush had prohibited political adviser Karl Rove from attending any meeting of the NSC because “the signal [Bush] wanted to send to the rest of his administration, the signal he wanted to send to the public, and the signal he especially wanted to send to the military is that the decisions I’m making that involve life and death for the people in uniform will not be tainted by any political decisions.” While political influence is inescapable, Bush did send the right message to his subordinates.

To justify the Steve Bannon’s elevation, White House spokesman Sean Spicer pointed to the inclusion of political advisers during President Obama’s tenure. “David Axelrod attended national security meetings, as did Robert Gibbs,” Spicer asserted, “So all we did, frankly, was become transparent and actually put down on paper who's going to attend.” For his part, Axelrod promptly denounced Spicer’s comments as simply not true, explaining “I was not a member of the committee. I did not speak or participate. I sat on the sidelines as a silent observer with Gibbs.” Yet Axelrod acknowledged that his presence “chagrined” some of the official NSC members, who felt his attendance was inappropriate. According to the Washington Post, “Axelrod frequently showed up at the meetings — particularly those having to do with strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq — to the consternation of Gates and others.”

In light of the divisiveness and hostility of politics at the moment, there is a strong case to be made that President Trump should have reassured both Congress and the electorate by applying the same rules to Steve Bannon that Bush did to Karl Rove. Alternately, Trump could invite Bannon as an observer rather than a participant, in the same manner as Axelrod. In addition, with the stroke of a pen, the president could add the Chairman and Director to the list of regular attendees at the PC. In fact, Trump has already amended his executive order to add the director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, to the list.

Of course, invitations matter far less if the NSC itself becomes marginalized, allowing major decisions to be made almost exclusively by political advisers. This tendency was already on display when the White House drafted its controversial executive order on refugees and immigration without significant input from the secretaries of either defense or homeland security.

The New York Times also reported that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has progressively lost the confidence of the president, leading other White House officials, including Steve Bannon, to engage in a series of “maneuvers to reduce Mr. Flynn’s role.” As usual, this kind of story about White House infighting rests on information provided by anonymous sources who may have personal agendas to promote. On the record, the White House denied any tension between Bannon and Flynn. Regardless, if the trend is real, it could have a negative impact far greater than changes to the composition of the NSC and Principals Committee.

Focus on the President

Amidst the furor over the NSC, legitimate concerns about politicizing the Council have sometimes given way to conspiratorial speculation. The editors of the New York Times proclaimed, “Mr. Bannon is positioning himself not merely as a Svengali but as the de facto president.” The better course of action is to hold the actual president accountable for the actions of his administration. As chief executive, he has a responsibility to establish practices that facilitate the careful review of national security options, supported by input from senior diplomats, military officers, and intelligence personnel. This is the best way to ensure that the president himself remains in firm control of the decision-making process, rather than allowing haphazard competition among subordinates to shape the outcome.

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