While both features of President Trump’s NSC plan raise questions, it is Bannon’s seat at the table that is the really important story. That’s not because there are suddenly politics at the NSC – there always have been. It’s because Bannon’s new role suggests that the politics are very different from what they used to be.
What’s written down is only part of the story
As others have pointed out, previous administrations have used some similar language when they laid out the NSC’s procedures (for example, George W. Bush’s initial directive used similar language about including the then-equivalent of the DNI and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the Principals Committee). More generally, presidents have some leeway to organize the NSC, and different administrations have taken different approaches.
But the formal procedures are not the whole story. Presidents can automatically include some officials at every meeting and then proceed to ignore or marginalize them. For example, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was formally part of the NSC Principals Committee, but he was quickly marginalized in the George W. Bush administration.
Presidents can also consult advisers outside of the NSC process, and this is often where the real action happens. Lyndon Johnson had his “Tuesday Lunch” group, which initially consisted of his secretaries of state and defense and his national security adviser and later expanded to include the CIA director and JCS chairman, among others. Richard Nixon essentially shrunk the national security decision-making group to himself and Henry Kissinger, who served as Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state.
Nonetheless, the Trump administration’s disdain for expert advice, its lack of governing experience, and its frequently hostile stance toward the intelligence community mean that even the appearance of excluding the DNI and JCS — both major sources of experience and bureaucratic competence — from NSC Principals Committee meetings, where much of the important NSC work of gathering information, discussing and formulating options, and coordinating policy takes place, is troubling. Guaranteeing those people are in the room would provide important reassurance that the experienced voices of the military and intelligence communities are getting heard.
People are shocked, shocked to find politics in the Situation Room
The truly remarkable thing about the Trump directive is the elevation of Bannon. Despite the polite fiction, politics does not stop at the water’s edge. Political considerations, and even political advisers, sometimes play a direct role in foreign policy and national security decisions. In the Obama administration, political advisers such as David Axelrod occasionally sat in on NSC meetings, although they did not have a formal role.
Giving a domestic political adviser with no national security or governmental experience a formal seat at the table is different. It’s not that people are naïve enough to think politics plays no role in national security. But most presidents prefer to keep this unsavory truth from being formally acknowledged in NSC meetings.
Officially including Bannon sends a very important signal to others inside the room — including the representatives of the intelligence committee, if they are there — as well as to those in the wider bureaucracy they represent. It tells them a lot about the true internal balance of power among the president’s advisers.
It is this effect on internal administration politics that matters. The National Security Presidential Memorandum, then, may simply codify an internal political victory for Bannon more than anything else. A fix in procedure — such as Trump’s announced intention to add back the CIA, left off the original list of NSC members in the memorandum — would not change the internal political dynamics.
Bannon is the real news
Very often, personnel and the politics associated with them matter much more than written procedures. This is likely to be especially true in the Trump administration, which has no great regard for precedent. And this personnel choice is a very important one.
Many have criticized Bannon for his extreme views, and he has made no secret of his desire to upend the Washington establishment. The appointment of a person with such views is a big departure for an institution like the NSC, whose function is to help coordinate information and policy across the government, especially in times of war or other crisis.
It also matters that Bannon will serve on an NSC that will ultimately report to a president with no foreign policy or governing experience. My research shows that inexperienced presidents are unable to provide the kind of monitoring and oversight that harnesses the best of their advisers and keeps the worst of their impulses or biases in check. This raises the question of whether Bannon will be a loose cannon in the foreign policy decision-making process.
In short, even if some of the language in Trump’s directive might be similar to those of previous administrations, or political advisers have appeared at NSC meetings in the past, it still matters greatly that Bannon has been elevated, and to a lesser but potentially important extent, that the DNI and JCS chair might be excluded.
What might change?
If changes in procedure are unlikely to affect the dynamic in the NSC, what will? The actions of the incoming Cabinet secretaries (assuming those still waiting are confirmed) will be important. Reports indicate that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and Rex Tillerson (secretary of state-designate) were not consulted about the executive order on immigration and are not pleased about that. If their displeasure extends to the policy itself, that could matter politically. My research shows that advisers’ support or opposition can affect how the public (and presumably members of Congress) views presidential national security decisions.
The reaction of other Republican national security officials, both in and out of government, will also be important. If they are worried, their concern will be credible to other GOP officials, including members of Congress. If details continue to leak out about missteps at the NSC, those concerns may build.
Ultimately, Bannon’s appointment to the NSC may reflect Trump’s weakness, rather than his strength, as Cornell University professor Tom Pepinsky notes. A strong leader, as Pepinsky writes, “is one who does not issue any command or instruction at all because she does not have to — her will is implemented already.” Bannon might have loomed large in national security decisions even without this formal appointment. Making it so public may undermine him from the beginning.
But a lot of damage can happen in the meantime. The Trump team’s approach and advisory process have revealed a lack of basic coordination among critical parts of the government — as illustrated by the chaotic drafting and rollout of the executive order on immigration and refugee policy. Trump, Bannon and the NSC are hurtling toward their inevitable first crisis. There is little precedent to tell us what is going to happen.
Elizabeth N. Saunders is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of “Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions.”