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 military, intelligence and Cabinet officials to greater roles on the council and left Bannon less directly 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 who is increasingly asserting himself over the flow of national security information in the White House.
McMaster has become a blunt force within the administration who has made clear to several top officials and the president that he does not want the NSC to have any political elements.
Two senior White House officials said that 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 spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
In conversations Wednesday afternoon, several Trump associates described Bannon as overstretched, with multiple portfolios within the White House, and said the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has been paying close attention to how to better use Bannon’s skills as the administration works to recover from a rocky and dramatic first few months.
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 Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, whose tenure was heavily criticized by Republicans.
“Susan E. 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.”
Obama’s NSC, like those of virtually all presidents since the council was established in the late 1940s, grew rapidly during his first term, and some Cabinet officials complained that it “micromanaged” their departments and decision-making. When Rice became national security adviser in 2013, she embarked on a somewhat successful effort to shrink its size. Her direct involvement in what some considered “operational” activities — including secret negotiations with Iran and Cuba — was relatively minimal compared with others’.
Bannon’s view of the NSC under Obama is reflective of his broader efforts to “deconstruct” the federal government, including slimming down bureaucracies, as well as the ad hoc nature of foreign policymaking and blurred lines of authority in the Trump White House so far.
“Bannon says he was put on NSC to ‘de-operationalize’ it. Think the word he was looking for was ‘dysfunctionalize,’ ” tweeted Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “Mission accomplished.”
Bannon’s place on the NSC’s principals committee generated intense controversy when the move was announced in January. National security experts, including Rice, 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 strongly disputed that characterization, saying Trump chose to change the structure of the principals 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 the meetings did not pertain to their areas of expertise.
Bannon’s role early on, one of the officials said, was to guide and in essence keep watch over Flynn, who was tasked with reshaping the operation but 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.
National security experts acknowledged that the Obama structure had been rife with complaints about too many meetings involving a glut of decision-makers, but they say 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.
Unease about Bannon’s strident nationalism and call to “deconstruct the administrative state” has led to clashes of temperament and policy even within the West Wing, officials said, with Bannon and particularly National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn disagreeing about aspects of Trump’s agenda and forming their own informal power networks within the executive branch.
Cohn, who is a registered Democrat, has grown close to Kushner in recent months, and another one of his allies inside of the White House, Dina Powell, was named deputy national security adviser for strategy last month.
While Bannon has been removed from the council, the list of invitees to the council’s principals and deputies meetings has expanded to include Powell, an Egyptian-born former national security official in the Bush administration and a Goldman Sachs official whose influence within the West Wing has expanded rapidly.
Kushner, Cohn and Powell, along with McMaster, have all become more powerful forces within the White House since the inauguration in liaising with foreign dignitaries and building relationships with key players on various policies.
Bannon remains a confidant of the president who is working closely with other advisers on domestic and foreign policy.
Along with Bannon’s removal, other changes outlined Wednesday in a memorandum further strengthen McMaster’s position. He is now in charge of the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council headed by Tom Bossert — a reversal from earlier in the year, when the NSC and HSC were put on equal footing.
The new NSC structure also restores the position of the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the principals committee, which was their role in the Obama administration. The director of the CIA has also been added to the principals committee.
In addition, the secretary and deputy secretary of the Energy Department — which oversees the nation’s nuclear arsenal — have been added as members of the principals and deputies committee meetings, respectively.
William Kristol, a Trump critic and longtime hawkish conservative voice, said the Republican foreign policy community was generally pleased to see the changes at the White House.
“McMaster is in charge and trying to chart policy in a reasonable way,” Kristol said, noting that the news was sudden and unexpected since McMaster has been “pretty quiet since he’s been there, being behind the scenes and avoiding interviews.”
Several officials said 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 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 is at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
While McMaster has tried to inject new hires and remove some existing staff, many of Flynn’s original hires and proteges remain in place. They include Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence, who several weeks ago enlisted Bannon and Kushner in a successful effort to reverse McMaster’s effort to replace him.
Trump’s NSC became embroiled in the controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 election. The Washington Post reported last week that three officials from the NSC — including Cohen-Watnick — collected and distributed documents to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), whose panel is investigating contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials during the election. Nunes later 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.
A key part of McMaster’s résumé is his 1997 book, “Dereliction of Duty,” which highlighted the failure of military leaders to give candid advice to the president in the lead-up to the Vietnam War and sets a high bar for advisers to the president.
“He was very critical of the Joint Chiefs and how they didn’t speak up more forcefully against the war,” Cancian said. “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.