What Trump’s Reshuffling of the National Security Council Means

Donald J. Trump walks out to be sworn in as America's 45th President, January 20, 2017.

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Donald J. Trump walks out to be sworn in as America's 45th President, January 20, 2017.

A former Bush and Obama NSC staffer says changes to the Council's top committee suggest Trump may exclude it from his decision-making entirely.

This weekend, President Trump issued his National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM) 2—a document outlining how he intends to organize and use his National Security Council (and Homeland Security Council) to develop, coordinate, and implement national-security policy. It makes significant changes, reshuffling the permanent membership of its most senior and influential committees. But the real concern about the NSC, one week into a new administration, is less the specific shape it takes, than whether the president will incorporate it into his decision-making process at all.

With every new president comes a new memorandum or directive (and acronym) organizing and guiding the NSC. President Obama issued Presidential Policy Directive-1 (PPD-1); President George W. Bush issued National Security Presidential Directive-1 (NSPD-1); President Clinton issued Presidential Decision Directive-2 (PDD-2); and President George H.W. Bush issued National Security Directive-1 (NSD-1). It is important to state up front that NSPM-2 ultimately serves as the operating manual of the NSC but it is not necessarily how national-security decision-making will ultimately happen in practice.

National Security Councils have been organized and have functioned differently under every modern American president since Harry Truman. They generally reflect the decision-making preferences and worldview of the president. I am not a historian of the NSC, but I have had the privilege of serving on the NSC staff for two presidents (George W. Bush and Barack Obama) and four national security advisers. And based on that experience, some aspects of how Trump plans to organize his national-security decision-making process seem particularly significant.

• For the first time in history, a president’s chief political strategist will be invited to attend any meeting of the National Security Council and will be a regular member of the highly-influential Principals Committee (PC). Now, politics finding its way into a president’s national-security decision-making is nothing new. But it rarely (if ever) gets a seat in the White House Situation Room—for good reason. To place a purely political operative on the NSC—alongside actual Cabinet members with national-security responsibilities or expertise—is an unprecedented move with profound implications for how national-security policies are developed and executed. To be clear, that concern is not confined to Steve Bannon. This would be the case no matter who it was.

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Some of the most sensitive and sacrosanct decisions by the president are made in meetings of the National Security Council. One only has to ask: What precise expertise does Bannon, or any chief strategist, have to contribute to those meetings, if not to ensure that policy is shaped by political implications or considerations? It may be likely that Trump would consult Steve Bannon regardless, but giving him a formal seat at the NSC sends a chilling message to men and women in uniform, to diplomats and intelligence professionals—that Bannon’s political advice matters as much as theirs.

• The director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff no longer get automatic seats at the adults’ table—also known as the Principals Committee. Below the NSC, the Principals Committee is the most senior interagency body of the national security process. It’s the last stop before taking a major national-security decision to the president. It’s chaired by the national security adviser, and usually contains at least the secretary of state, the secretary of defense and until recently, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and director of national intelligence. To remove the chairman and the DNI is not historically without precedent. In fact, George W. Bush’s NSPD-1 also did not list the then-DCI and chairman as regular PC members—only when issues relevant to their responsibilities or expertise were to be discussed. Of course, NSPD-1 was issued before the events of September 11, and military and intelligence inputs have been considered essential ever since.

So this move remains bizarre given the nature of the national-security challenges America faces and President Trump’s own stated priorities. In fact, I can’t think of a single top national-security issue today that doesn’t require the president to have military and intelligence expertise (not to mention well-developed and considered options)—including ISIS, North Korea, China, and Iran. Given Trump’s recent treatment and open distrust of the U.S. intelligence community, it is hard not to read this as yet another worrying signal of his intent. Alternatively, it might be a power play by National Security Advisor Mike Flynn. Surely Flynn will find it is in his interest to include the chairman and the DNI in most if not all PC meetings. Nobody wants to serve up a policy or decision to the president that doesn’t benefit from military and intelligence expertise. Right?

• The Homeland Security Council reemerges, but it probably won’t make Americans any safer. In 2009, Obama moved to reintegrate the core functions of the Homeland Security Council (a historic anomaly established under George W. Bush) into the National Security Council and its staff—the idea being that counterterrorism policy and decisions should be part and parcel of a much broader national-security policy. This was sometimes an uneven integration and didn’t entirely eliminate counterterrorism stovepipes. But instead of working to achieve a more comprehensive counterterrorism policy, Trump has reversed course by bringing the HSC back from the dead. This appears to be mostly a symbolic change, but it will probably drive everyone involved in the interagency process nuts in a couple months. Even if they’re using the same NSC staff, the success of the process will rely heavily on a strong relationship between the national security advisor and homeland security advisor. In practice, it probably won’t do much to improve counterterrorism or homeland security.

The reality is that these directives are mostly guideposts and expressions of early presidential intent. During the course of my nearly six years on the NSC staff, I watched the membership of PCs and NSC change based on the issues at hand. I saw both good NSC process and bad NSC process. Ultimately, however, the success or failure of every National Security Council depends heavily on the command culture set by the president, the discipline and transparency of the NSC process itself, and the personalities and relationships of those sitting around the table in the White House Situation Room.

The Trump presidency has yet to be tested by a real national-security crisis, but it is coming—and the president will definitely need a functional and disciplined NSC to navigate the storm. Based on the events of this week, however, it is not yet clear how much Trump will actually rely on his NSC or any formal process for major national-security decisions. That, more than the memo, may be the most serious cause for concern.

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