Of the many puzzles posed by President Trump’s administration, the role of the National Security Council is among the trickiest. The NSC usually tries to act as an “honest broker” among Cabinet agencies. But how will it function under a headstrong president who sees his role as disruptor and tweeter-in-chief?
This challenge falls to national security adviser Michael Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who holds a position once filled by such luminaries as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. His NSC got off to a controversial start with a directive installing chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon on the principals committee and initially reported as reducing the role of the military and intelligence chiefs.
The NSC membership list upset critics, but its practical effect will probably be limited. If Bannon is going to play a big (and disruptive) role in national security, maybe it’s better for him to operate within the NSC structure than to go directly to the president. And in an administration where two top Cabinet positions are held by retired four-star generals, the military won’t lack for influence.
The larger issue is stability and coherence of policy. Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser for President George W. Bush, explains: “Trump is an insurgent president leading a populist movement. He came in with an agenda that was disruptive and destructive — throw over the money changers’ tables. The next six months will see destruction, some of it creative and some just destructive. The question is what Trump will want to build after that.”
Flynn spoke with me for an hour last Friday. He talked about Trump’s management style, Bannon’s role and his model for how the NSC should work. His comments didn’t answer any of the big questions about Trump’s presidency, such as the merits of an entry ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. But Flynn presented a calmer and less combative image than when he mocked Hillary Clinton by chanting “Lock her up!” during the Republican National Convention.
Flynn started with an organization chart that’s modestly streamlined. He says he’ll have eight people reporting directly to him, compared with his predecessor Susan Rice’s 23. The most interesting detail is the small box on the top-right corner, marked “Stephen Bannon.” It’s a staff position, not in the chain of command. Next to it is a “Strategic Vision Task Force” that Flynn and Bannon will oversee along with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
Flynn, who has been at Trump’s side far longer than Bannon, described the strategist as part of the “new team” that “got us across the finish line.” He denied news accounts of friction, noting the two meet “routinely.” Interestingly, he described the populist Bannon’s stance as “more left than right.”
Flynn is still hiring his staff. He said about 85 percent of his roughly 230 employees are assigned from other agencies, with about 60 of those positions unfilled. That may reflect wariness at the State Department and CIA, where many career officials are reluctant to work for Trump.
An overarching goal, Flynn said, is to “do more strategy, not kill people with process.” Where President Barack Obama wanted a tightly controlled interagency system, Flynn wants Cabinet agencies to do their jobs. He scoffed at the Washington micromanagement sometimes described as “the 5,000-mile screwdriver.”
An example of Flynn’s focus on strategy is a plan to reorient the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board so that it’s focused more on assessment and less on intelligence. The idea is to tap the global connections of top business and academic leaders. But this change may worry those who want intelligence oversight.
Trump’s turbulent first two weeks led some critics to complain about haphazard management. Flynn tried to rebut that image by describing the run-up to the Iran sanctions. He met five times with the acting treasury secretary to discuss sanctions; planning was underway before Iran provided a rationale with its Jan. 29 missile test.
The morning that sanctions were announced, Flynn said he personally notified counterparts in Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Former defense secretary Bob Gates notes that Flynn’s job will be complicated by the many competing centers of power in this White House. “If someone comes up with a bad idea and Flynn says no, there are four or five other gateways to reach the president. It’s a more complicated environment than his predecessors faced.”
Flynn’s real test will be his relationship with his boss. He likened Trump to the chariot driver in “Ben-Hur,” urging his horses forward. That image captures Flynn’s challenge: how to build an orderly national security process led by a whip-cracking charioteer.
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