Clarification: An earlier version of this op-ed stated that no political advisers to the president had ever served on the National Security Council before the appointment of Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor. Edwin Meese, when he was counselor to the president, served on the NSC during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. This version has been updated.
David J. Rothkopf is chief executive and editor of the FP Group, which publishes Foreign Policy magazine. He has written two histories of the NSC, “Running the World” and last year’s “National Insecurity.”
While demonstrators poured into airports to protest the Trump administration’s draconian immigration policies, another presidential memorandum signed this weekend may have even more lasting, wide-ranging and dangerous consequences. The document sounds like a simple bureaucratic shuffle, outlining the shape the National Security Council will take under President Trump. Instead, it is deeply worrisome.
The idea of the National Security Council (NSC), established in 1947, is to ensure that the president has the best possible advice from his Cabinet, the military and the intelligence community before making consequential decisions, and to ensure that, once those decisions are made, a centralized mechanism exists to guarantee their effective implementation. The NSC is effectively the central nervous system of the U.S. foreign policy and national security apparatus.
Trump’s memorandum described the structure of his NSC — not unusual given that the exact composition shifts in modest ways from administration to administration. The problem lies in the changes that he made.
First, he essentially demoted the highest-ranking military officer in the United States, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the highest-ranking intelligence officer in the United States, the director of national intelligence. In previous administrations, those positions or their equivalent (before the creation of the director of national intelligence, the CIA director occupied that role) held permanent positions on the NSC.
Now, those key officials will be invited only when their specific expertise is seen to be required. Hard as it is to imagine any situation in which their views would not add value, this demotion is even harder to countenance given the threats the United States currently faces and the frayed state of the president’s relations with the intelligence community. A president who has no national security experience and can use all the advice he can get has decided to limit the input he receives from two of the most important advisers any president could have.
The president compounded this error of structure with an error of judgment that should send shivers down the spine of every American and our allies worldwide. Even as he pushed away professional security advice, Trump decided to make his top political advisor, Stephen K. Bannon, a permanent member of the NSC. Although the White House chief of staff is typically a participant in NSC deliberations, I know of few other instances in which a political adviser has been a formal permanent member of the council.
Further, Bannon is the precisely wrong person for this wrong role. His national security experience consists of a graduate degree and seven years in the Navy. More troubling, Bannon’s role as chairman of Breitbart.com, with its racist, misogynist and Islamophobic perspectives, and his avowed desire to blow up our system of government, suggests this is someone who not only has no business being a permanent member of the most powerful consultative body in the world — he has no business being in a position of responsibility in any government.
Worse still, it is an omen of other problems to come. Organizing the NSC this way does not reflect well on national security adviser Michael Flynn — whether the bad decision is a result of his lack of understanding of what the NSC should do or because he is giving in to pressure from his boss.
Moreover, elevating Bannon is a sign that there will be more than one senior official in Trump’s inner circle with top-level national security responsibility, an arrangement nearly certain to create confusion going forward.
Indeed, rumors are already circulating that Bannon and senior adviser Jared Kushner are the go-to people on national security issues for the administration, again despite the lack of experience, temperament or institutional support for either. Kushner has been given key roles on Israel, Mexico and China already. History suggests all this will not end well, with rivalries emerging with State, Defense, the Trade Representative and other agencies.
Combine all this with the president’s own shoot-from-the-lip impulses, his flair for improvisation and his well-known thin skin. You end up with a bad NSC structure being compromised by a kitchen cabinet-type superstructure and the whole thing likely being made even more dysfunctional by a president who, according to multiple reports, does not welcome advice in the first place — especially when it contradicts his own views.
The executive order on immigration and refugees was un-American, counterproductive and possibly illegal. The restructuring of the NSC, and the way in which this White House is threatening to operate outside the formal NSC structure, all but guarantees that it will not be the last bad decision to emerge from the Trump administration.