As the Trump administration gets underway, its most influential foreign policy figures are not its Cabinet nominees, or even the National Security Council, but a handful of senior people close to the president-elect. Donald Trump has a national security kitchen cabinet that is shaping his policies and setting itself up as the center of power for all matters of international significance.
When Trump’s Cabinet members are confirmed and their staffs are in place, heads of national security departments and agencies could be in a position to exert great influence. But for now, incoming chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, senior adviser Jared Kushner and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus comprise an informal council that sits atop the Trump transition team’s executive committee and has the final say on national security personnel appointments. No major decision can go forward without their sign-off.
“The big three is Priebus, Bannon and Jared,” said one transition official, who is not authorized to speak about internal deliberations. “For Cabinet jobs, service secretaries and ambassadorships, they are the ones who have to approve it before it becomes real.”
The national security adviser-designate, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, is also playing a major role, not only in choosing his National Security Council staff but also by putting forth candidates for other national security and intelligence agencies, transition officials said. Billionaire Peter Thiel is involved in the Defense Department transition, mostly on an organizational level, and is also on the official executive committee.
But internally in Trump world, it’s understood that Bannon, Kushner and Priebus have the most influence with Trump and the most decision-making power. In addition to overseeing personnel appointments, each of them has emerged as influential on foreign policy in unique ways.
Bannon has been working on the long-term strategic vision that will shape the Trump administration’s overall foreign policy approach. He has a keen interest in Asia, is committed to working on the buildup of the military and is also interested in connecting the Trump apparatus to leaders of populist movements around the world, especially in Europe.
Kushner has become a main interlocutor for foreign governments and has been interacting with leading representatives from countries including Israel, Germany and Britain. He also has the most amount of confidence from the incoming president and is charged with looking out for the personal political interests of his father-in-law.
Priebus’s role is often to take the ideas and plans put forth by other Trump loyalists and filter them through the lens of what would work practically. He is known to weigh in on how major foreign policy ideas or appointments would be received by outsiders such as lawmakers, foreign governments and the media.
“Bannon is focused on Trump the ideological brand, Kushner is focused on Trump the man, and Priebus is focused on everything else,” the transition official said.
The Cabinet-level officials who are about to join the administration are no shrinking violets. Defense secretary nominee James N. Mattis, secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, director of national intelligence nominee Dan Coats, homeland security secretary nominee John Kelly and CIA director nominee Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) all have well-formed ideas about U.S. foreign policy and how their agencies can advance American interests.
But they all begin at a disadvantage, fighting for influence in a team of strong personalities who are busily carving up issues, making plans and nurturing already close relationships with the president-elect. Some of those tensions have already spilled out into the open, especially regarding who will get top national security jobs.
Mattis and the Trump team have already clashed over Pentagon staffing, and consequently most Defense Department senior official positions remain unfilled. Transition officials told me that Mattis requested that almost two dozen Pentagon political appointees be allowed to stay on during the first months of the Trump administration because he did not want the Pentagon to be caught flat-footed in case of an early emergency.
The Trump transition team pushed back and allowed Mattis to retain only a half-dozen top officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. On Tuesday, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) wrote a letter to the Trump transition team urging them to allow senior officials in sensitive national security posts to stay on until their replacements are nominated and confirmed.
“I understand that new administrations, regardless of political party, bring new management and personnel, but the United States faces an increasing number of global threats,” he wrote. “We simply cannot afford to allow national security positions to effectively run on ‘auto-pilot.’ The responsibilities are too important.”
Mattis and the Trump team in New York also clashed over Mattis’s desire to appoint Pentagon officials who did not support Trump during the GOP primary. The head of Defense Department personnel for the transition team, John P. Gallagher, will no longer be in charge of that portfolio when the transition team becomes the White House staff after Friday’s inauguration.
Three transition officials told me that Mira Ricardel, who was the head of the transition’s Pentagon landing team, will take over as the White House lead official for Defense Department personnel appointments. There was a perception that Gallagher, a former senior advisor to several top generals, was too close to Mattis. Ricardel is viewed by the Trump leadership in New York as more attuned to the political interests of Trump, the officials said.
Ricardel’s portfolio will also include Veterans Affairs and parts of the intelligence community. Mattis and Ricardel met Tuesday in the Trump transition office in Washington to discuss service secretaries and other senior Pentagon appointments. David McCormick, who was slated to be Mattis’s deputy, took himself out of the running, resetting the search for that position as well.
Former State Department official and Goldman Sachs executive Erin Walsh will be the White House official in charge of managing appointments for the State Department and USAID, transition officials said. Walsh was the leader of the State Department landing team during the transition.
Inside Trump world, there is also a lot of jostling for spots on what are known as the “beachhead teams.” These are sets of officials who will receive temporary 120-day political appointments while the permanent appointments are sorted out. There’s no guarantee the beachhead team officials will get permanent jobs, but they will be in a stronger position to contend for them. This is another way in which the Trump insiders are already exerting influence before the Cabinet officials can get their boots on.
Ultimately the question is who Trump will rely on when the final decisions are made on crucial foreign policy and national security issues. So far, all indications are it will be those who were with Trump from the beginning.