President Donald Trump elevated the role of his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, this weekend, as part of an overhaul of the National Security Council aimed at streamlining the deliberative process.
The President’s reform shrinks the roster of regular members of the National Security Council’s principals committee — a premier gathering in the U.S. government’s foreign policy decisionmaking process — by removing several officials, including the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as regular members. The pair will attend when “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed,” the President’s memorandum stated. The committee, chaired by either the National Security Adviser or the Homeland Security Adviser, is often the final step where policy is shaped before being presented to the President for sign-off.
The promotion of Bannon to the principals’ level represents a historic break with the non-politicization of the NSC. Republican Senator John McCain called it a “radical departure” from tradition Sunday. The keeper of the President’s populist flame, Bannon will be treated the same as the President’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, with a standing invitation to the full National Security Council meetings chaired by the President.
In the early days of the Obama Administration, Cabinet officials strenuously objected when political aides attended NSC meetings on Afghanistan policy, prompting the then President to reverse course. The elevation reflects both Bannon’s outsize role in the President’s inner circle, which extends far beyond the political role of his predecessors, and the President’s buy-in to Bannon promotion of an “America First” foreign policy, which is a departure from mainstream Republican foreign policy.
A bipartisan collection of former NSC officials expressed worry that the new NSC structure provided a mechanism for excluding the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from meetings. An Administration official said the new organization structure was not designed to exclude the two officials but rather to provide them the option of skipping when they feel they aren’t needed.
But former national security officials said the move could lead to an inferior deliberative process. “I did object to political advisers attending NSC meetings,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told TIME Sunday, “but that concern pales in importance to my concern over restrictions on the attendance at NSC meetings of the Chairman and the DNI.”
Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who held the job until Jan. 20, was more blunt. “This is stone cold crazy. After a week of crazy,” she tweeted. “Who needs military advice or intell to make policy on ISIL, Syria, Afghanistan, DPRK?”
According to the memorandum, the National Security Adviser and the Homeland Security Adviser, who convene the principals’ meetings, determine the agenda and the attendance beyond the required core group. Michael Flynn, the National Security Adviser who has long faced skepticism among the foreign policy establishment and has a history of making incendiary statements about Muslims and others, could have the ability to bar both top officials from the top-level meetings, former officials warned. Others worried that the new structure would rely on Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, a former general who received a congressional waiver to take the posting, to represent the views of the uniformed military, which is no longer his role.
An Administration official contested the notion that the reorganization was designed to keep the officials from the meetings, saying the decision was “more about respecting principals’ time.”
The new structure, the official added, provided the officials flexibility and freedom from unnecessary meetings. “There are going to be a lot of issues where you don’t need the DNI or CJCS since their equities aren’t necessarily affected,” the official said, specifying some meetings of the Homeland Security Council as an example.
The Administration official cast the reorganization as part of a broader effort to reform the National Security Council, which massively grew in size and import during the Obama Administration. Rice, in her final months, began some of the reorganization, touting in her final days that she shrunk the council’s staff by 10%. The new structure is designed to prioritize policy outcomes, the official said, while eliminating unnecessary meetings and paperwork. The former NSC’s, “Interagency Policy Committees” are being replaced by smaller “Policy Coordination Committees.”
“The real overarching theme here is to push decisionmaking down to the appropriate level,” the official said, adding, “I think there’s an intention to fix what’s widely considered to be a broken interagency process.”
A bipartisan paper published by fellows at the Center for American Progress and the Hoover Institution earlier this year features top officials’ complaints about bloat and time-consuming process within the NSC. The Administration official said it reflected Flynn’s thinking about the former NSC and guided the reorganization.
The NSC staff will shrink further under the new structure, the official confirmed, but the extent of the staff reductions were not yet clear. The official maintained that while few staffing announcements have been made publicly, the NSC staff’s ranks of senior directors and career staff is almost completely filled.
The first meetings of the National Security Council, the principals committee and the deputies committee have not been scheduled yet, pending the confirmation of the rest of the Cabinet and the nomination and confirmation of sub-Cabinet posts.