President Trump on Wednesday removed controversial White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon from the National Security Council, part of a sweeping staff reshuffling that elevated key military and intelligence officials to greater roles on the council and left Bannon far less involved in shaping the administration’s day-to-day national security policy.
The restructuring reflects the growing influence of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, an Army three-star general who took over the post after retired general Michael Flynn was ousted in February and is increasingly asserting himself over the flow of national security information in the White House.
The new order establishing the structure of the council, which was published in the federal register, puts McMaster in overall charge of the both the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council headed by homeland security adviser Tom Bossert. Trump’s original order had placed the NSC and HSC on equal footing, with McMaster and Bossert as coequals who could convene and chair meetings of principals and set agendas. Now, Bossert can call and chair meetings only “at the sole discretion” of McMaster, according to the order.
Even as Bannon has been removed from the list, invitees to principals and deputies meetings have expanded to include the deputy national security adviser for strategy. The post is currently held by Dina Powell, an Egyptian-born former national security official in the Bush administration and a Goldman Sachs official whose influence within the West Wing has grown rapidly.
McMaster has become a rising and blunt force within the White House and he has made clear to several top officials and to the president that he does not want the NSC to have any political elements. McMaster has also expressed that while he understood Bannon’s role, he believed it was not necessary for the president to have him there as the NSC was reorganized under McMaster's leadership.
The move followed days of discussions with top aides, including Bannon, about the scope of the adviser’s role moving forward and it reflects McMaster's more complete takeover of the council and its operations, according to five officials familiar with the decision.
Two senior White House officials said Bannon’s departure was in no way a demotion and that he had rarely attended meetings since being placed on the council. They and others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. The news of Bannon's removal was first reported by Bloomberg News.
In a statement, Bannon framed his removal as the culmination of an effort to change the makeup of the NSC as it operated under President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, who played a part in expanding the NSC staff.
“Susan Rice operationalized the NSC during the last administration,” Bannon said. “I was put on to ensure that it was de-operationalized. General McMaster has returned the NSC to its proper function.”
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Bannon's place on the committee had been a subject of intense controversy when the move was announced in January. National security experts, including a former Obama administration official, characterized it as an elevation of a White House official with no national security experience, even while other national security officials in the administration were included on the NSC only when “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise” were involved. The White House later added the director of the CIA to the NSC.
The White House strongly disputed that characterization, saying that Trump chose to change the structure of the committee from the one in place during the Obama administration to reduce the number of meetings in which senior intelligence officials were required to participate if they did not pertain to their areas of expertise.
Instead, one of the officials said, Bannon's role on the council early on in the administration was to guide and in essence keep watch over Flynn, who was tasked with reshaping the operation and whose management style could be combative. That official and a second official said Bannon did this from afar, attending one or two meetings of the group.
Bannon's view of the NSC under Obama is reflective of his broader efforts to “deconstruct” the federal government, including slimming down bureaucracies like the NSC.
National security experts acknowledged that the Obama structure had been rife with complaints of too many meetings involving a glut of decision-makers, but those issues could also have been resolved at the discretion of the national security adviser.
“Whether it was too operational or too much micromanagement, that criticism did exist, but you don't need the chief strategist to be the one to try to rein that in,” said John B. Bellinger III, who was the legal adviser to the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. “Overall, if the thrust of all of these changes is that Steve Bannon has been removed from the NSC and the principals committee and replaced by Dina Powell... that may show you that the White House is heading is a heading in a slightly different direction in terms of decision-making.”
Bannon's departure from the NSC is the latest change to personnel in the senior ranks of the White House. Last week, deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh left her post to take on a new role in a pro-Trump outside group, and Flynn was ousted in February after it was revealed that he misled Vice President Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the transition.
Several officials said that McMaster is putting his own stamp on the NSC process and trying to formalize it, despite ongoing concerns that Trump’s top White House aides — and some NSC staffers particularly close to them — continue to hold their own national security strategy meetings outside that process.
“McMaster is trying to put them under his control and either removing or downgrading people who had independent linkages to the White House so that advice will flow through him, which is normal,” said Mark Cancian, a national security expert and former White House official who at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Trump's NSC also became embroiled in the controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 election. The Washington Post reported last week that three officials from the NSC collected and distributed documents to House Permanent Select Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who is investigating contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials during the election. Nunes held a news conference and briefed the president on those documents, which he said suggested that Trump associates were the subjects of incidental and legal surveillance by the Obama administration.
McMaster, who has become a conduit for foreign diplomatic leaders, has kept a low public profile since joining the administration, avoiding interviews and speeches. But inside the White House, he has gained significant influence and his plans for the council have largely been encouraged by the president’s closest aides.
The new changes reflect McMaster's intent to put his stamp on the decision-making process in a White House known for competing power structures and where few advisers to the president adhere to a rigid chain of command. His 1997 book, “Dereliction of Duty,” which highlighted the failure of military leaders to give candid advice to the president in the lead up the Vietnam War, sets a high bar for national security advisers.
“He was very critical of the joint chiefs and how they didn't speak up more forcefully against the war,” said Cancian. “He put a mark on the wall here and he has to live up to it.
“It's going to drive him to be very clear and pointed in his advice particularly if he disagrees with the president or other elements of government,” he added.
Bannon retains his title and position and remains a confidant of the president who is working closely with other advisers on domestic and foreign policy.
In addition, according to the federal register, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are being restored to the NSC's principal's committee, which was their role in the Obama administration. The director of the CIA has also been added to the principal's committee.
National security experts viewed those changes as largely cosmetic given that those officials would have independent lines of communication to the president, independent of the NSC.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.