January 31, 2017–Second fiddle to the immense current controversy over President Donald J. Trump’s immigration action has been his initiative on national security. Here the firestorm concerned a Trump directive that added political operative Stephen K. Bannon to the Principals Committee of the National Security Council (NSC). At the same time the president demoted the incoming Director of National Intelligence and the general who is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to merely occasional attendance on that same committee. Susan Rice, the national security adviser who served former president Barack Obama, labeled this action “stone cold crazy.”
Attracting the most attention is Stephen Bannon’s apparent promotion. As “chief strategist” he was supposed to be providing Mr. Trump with suitable advice. Now the Trump directive, called a “National Security Presidential Memorandum” (NSPM) not only “invites” Bannon to attend all NSC meetings, it makes him a member of the NSC Principals Committee, and Bannon’s deputy an invitee to sessions of the NSC Deputies Committee. In all this gnashing of teeth no one seems to have noticed that President Trump has also elevated his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, in the same way.
Common wisdom is that Mr. Bannon is becoming the unelected president, exercising all the power, without the title or, indeed, the people’s opportunity to vote on him. I actually think it is too soon to draw that conclusion. What can fairly be said is that President Trump seems to be about increasing the political content of NSC discussions. This is not new–and the media discussions so far have been extremely shallow. Yes, David Axelrod sat in on some NSC discussions, yes Karl Rove was kept out of some similar deliberations during George W. Bush’s time. But it is absurd to think that presidents have historically kept politics out of national security. Under Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski made a point of including political considerations in NSC staff work. Henry Kissinger, his predecessor, can be heard on the Nixon White House tapes talking politics quite often. President Carter also listened to chief of staff Hamilton Jordan on national security matters, making him a major player in Washington’s decisions on whether to admit the Shah to the United States for medical treatment, which became a catalyst for the Iran Hostage Crisis. Ronald Reagan used his top politicos on security missions repeatedly. One of them, James Baker III, actually became secretary of state when Reagan’s vice-president, George H. W. Bush, ascended to the presidency. And Bush’s son, “W,” used political aides as well. Andy Card delivered White House messages to the CIA, played a role in the “Niger uranium” affair that convinced CIA boss George Tenet to retire, and he served as utility infielder for the president. It’s the job.
On the other hand the pundits have captured the deeper importance of NSPM-2, the formal identity of Trump’s reorganization directive. It does bring politics more to the fore at the NSC. The presence of both Bannon and Priebus on the Principals committee is a first-order indicator that Trump’s Council will become one battleground where the White House pecking order will be fought over. But the elephant in the closet is Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who is really the topmost adviser of all. An alternative explanation for the NSC imbroglio is it puts the big shot advisers in a ring to duke it out while Kushner consolidates his own power.
Stone cold crazy? Yes, at the level of mere national security. This will cost the nation in the quality of our foreign policy and the coherence of Pentagon efforts. But the judgment also depends on the president’s real aims. If they are political, this harebrained scheme may not be stupid at all. It puts big aspirants to power in a place where they can be tied to the ridiculous judgments that flow from this NSC–and then they can be pushed out of the Trump administration. That brings us to the question of principle: there is none here. It is an outrage to the American people to use national security and foreign policy as mousetraps to catch power players.