(Alex Brandon/AP)

What Does the Reorganization of Trump’s NSC Mean?

Maybe different than you’ve seen reported, but probably just as worrisome

On Saturday, Donald Trump promulgated a memorandum reorganizing the National Security Council, something done by all presidents as they begin their administrations. This action sparked a flurry of stories, with varying degrees of accuracy and understanding about the form and function of the NSC. The two major takeaways if you read some of these were that Trump’s political guru got a seat at the table and that the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) were downgraded from full-time attendees. Are these true, and if so what do they mean? Let’s see.

The National Security Council was created by the National Security Act of 1947, which has been amended multiple times since then. It is currently codified at 50 U.S. Code § 3021. The term National Security Council can mean different things to different speakers at different times, depending on the context, but at its heart, the Council itself is what is set forth in the Act, the so called “statutory” members: The President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of Energy. To this small group, presidents add members of their choosing, either as regular participants or only when particular issues are being discussed. This group always includes the National Security Adviser, who often sets the agenda of the meetings. When this group meets, with the President, it is a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC).

Because issues related to national security are being discussed constantly and at various levels of government, there are other organizations or levels within the NSC. The highest of these is called the Principals Committee (PC). If you wanted to think of this as the same people as an NSC meeting, just without the attendance of the President, you wouldn’t be far off base.

Just below the PC you find the Deputies Committee (DC). As the name indicates, this level of meeting generally includes the deputies to the principals on the PC. There are other important structures in the NSC as well, such as the Interagency Policy Committees and of course the NSC staff, which we aren’t focusing on here. Note that the term NSC is also often used to describe this entire structure together, but that is not how we are using it here.

The part to remember about these memos is that they are an idealized expression of structure. In reality, unremarkably, who is present in various conversations and circumstances could change and be dictated by people’s schedules or other happenings, or by necessity in the case of breaking events when not every named individual of a given organizational level is present. The NSC itself, the body of principals in attendance with the President, is of course a decisionmaking body. The President can make decisions how he sees fit, acting on the advice of other members of the NSC, deciding between opposing advice within the NSC, or even making decisions contrary to what the NSC members counsel. As George W. Bush used to say, and as reflected in other parts of the vast executive branch, the president is the “Decider in Chief.”

One might think, then, that decisions are made only at the NSC level, by or in coordination with the President. However, that is not the case: the PC is also a decisionmaking body. This is unremarkable if you consider that this is a body comprised of cabinet level officials. However, the absence of the President means that decisions made by this body are generally made by consensus. Without the President, there is no head to arbitrate disagreements or to break ties. For this reason, at the PC level it reportedly is not typical for a deputy to participate in a meeting in place of the principal he or she represents. In contrast, the DC is not a decisionmaking body. Rather, the deputies participating in these meetings extensively develop policy for final decisions and are tasked with other functions, such as coordinating the interagency groups mentioned above, leading crisis management, and ensuring that policy is being implemented properly. It is a working body rather than a decisionmaking one. As one professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College notes, the DC is the “engine of the policy process” and “It is [the] deputies who do the heavy lifting.”

With that background, let’s look at the changes Donald Trump has made in his reorganization. Let’s look first at what was widely reported, and then following that at a few other changes that were not in the flurry of news stories that came out this week.

First off, the Trump memo does not remove the DNI or CJCS from the NSC, as has been reported. In fact, the memo states that their attendance is mandatory: “The Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as statutory advisers to the NSC, shall also attend NSC meetings.” The reorganization does, however, give Trump advisor Steven Bannon, “the Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist,” a seat at the table in full NSC meetings.

Trump does actually direct a major change regarding intelligence and military advice at the PC level, in that the DNI and the CJCS are required to “attend where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” This is a definite diminution of their roles in the National Security Council structure, and a departure from Barack Obama’s NSC structure. It is not, however, as novel as it seems in that it is the same organization at the PC level that George W. Bush used. [Note that at that time the DNI did not exist and the NSC organizational memo referred to the Director of Central Intelligence.] At this level, Bannon is also listed as one of the “regular attendees,” so has a place at all PC meetings.

Finally, at the DC level the Deputy Director of National Intelligence and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are regular required members, thereby adding back in the intelligence and military viewpoints regardless of the topic being discussed at the meetings.

So what’s going on?

Let me preface this with a few points. Regardless of the organizational chart, national security decisionmaking can be as freewheeling as any other part of the government, especially depending on the president. It will not always formally adhere to the stated process. Additionally, by many reports the matters attended to at NSC and PC meetings can be unconstrained by agendas, meaning that if certain offices aren’t represented in the room, that perspective might simply be neglected. And finally, these thoughts are based on study rather than practice, as I’ve not worked professionally in this area.

So what’s going on? The most nefarious reading of this is that every change has been made for a particular purpose.

In this vein, the most problematic part of Trump’s reorganization seems to be at the PC level. Here, you have Bannon given a voice in the meetings. Not only is he Trump’s political guru, which in itself is a momentous change from past practice, but as an individual he’s also been responsible for rallying the so-called “Alt-Right” white ethno-nationalists and faces legitimate charges about his support for racism, sexism, nativism, and nationalism. Given that it’s the PC level, this means he has a voice in national security decisionmaking. At the same time, the DNI and the CJCS are downgraded from required participants to only required when the work involves an issue related to their expertise. Because the discussions can and reportedly do change from the agendas that are laid out, this could mean that issues are discussed, and decisions are made, related to intelligence or military expertise without those members being present.

This could be a serious issue. The DNI and the CJCS are seen as representing professional rather than political policy viewpoints. In the case of the DNI this is despite the fact that it is a political appointment of an unfixed term. As Judge James E. Baker, who was formerly Special Assistant to the President and Legal Adviser to the National Security Council, has written, the particular nature of these two advisers is reflected by the “statutory distinction between membership and advisory status [which] reflects practice as well as tradition, founded in the culture of the armed forces and intelligence community, that the [DNI and CJCS] should limit their input to their areas of professional expertise and defer on questions of policy.” That is, this is why the DNI and the CJCS are “advisers to” rather than “members” of the NSC in the statute.

It is difficult to overstate how fundamental a change Bannon’s inclusion represents. Cabinet secretaries are political appointments, but they are there to represent professional capacities of the U.S. government, entire agencies filled with professional staff. They aren’t representing the day to day politics and communications of the president or the direction of the next campaign. By contrast, Stephen Bannon is. His position is comparable to that of David Axelrod in the Obama administration or Karl Rove in that of George W. Bush. Since the Trump NSC organization news broke, the White House has pushed back claiming that Axelrod was a participant in Obama NSC meetings.

Axelrod has since written that allegation is false, noting that he and then Press Secretary Robert Gibbs attended several meetings as observers, “to gain a thorough understanding of what would be one of the most important judgments [Obama] would make as commander-in-chief….because we would be called upon to publicly discuss the president’s decision on that critical matter and the process by which he arrived at it,” that they “did not speak or participate,” and that they “were barred from some of the most sensitive meetings on the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review.” If Axelrod’s and Gibb’s silent attendance in the back row of certain NSC meetings in 2009 was at all inappropriate, Bannon’s regular attendance as an active participant of both the NSC and the PC is astonishing.

Where this gets us is that this structure is perfectly designed for a high degree of politicization of national security decisionmaking. It primes Bannon to exert power at least as great as the cabinet level members of the NSC, if not greater considering Bannon’s influence on the president and the possibility that other members might view him as speaking for the president’s views. On the idea that we should believe people when they tell us who they are, we should note here that Bannon has unabashedly expressed this sentiment:

“I’m a Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

It is an understatement to say that his viewpoint does not mesh well with the goal of levelheaded rational management or the degree of continuity from administration to administration that national security decision making often demonstrates.

The worst case scenario one could envision would be that the Trump White House would feature a NSC Principals Committee dominated by Bannon and regularly not involving the DNI or CJCS, a PC that would be able to craft policy and implement it on its own, or at least be able to present it to Trump as the consensus on what direction American needed to take on any particular issue.

It’s not really less frightening that the president will be in the room with Bannon during the NSC meetings themselves, when the DNI and the CJCS will be present. This is because Bannon’s voice has already been shown to be very important in this White House. Further, oftentimes in the American presidency the degree to which any adviser is able to influence the president depends on not just the closeness of the relationship but also the proximity of the adviser. Bannon, with his West Wing office and unfettered access, will win the proximity game against any cabinet secretary. This is especially problematic when a president tends to be influenced the most from whoever was the last person to speak to him.

Counterintuitively, the fact that Trump appointed military generals to his cabinet might end up being fortuitous in this situation. I’m not talking about Trump’s National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, who has shown himself to be a conspiracy theorist and has promoted social media posts espousing racist and anti-semitic sentiments. Rather, I’m talking about General John Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security and General James Mattis at the Department of Defense. Both are distinguished and well respected officers who served without controversy.

On the whole, I disagree with the idea of appointing high ranking military officials to cabinet level positions. I don’t think there should be an outright ban, but I think their appointment should be sparing, and that the principle of civilian leadership at the Department of Defense should always win out. The abundance of military leaders appointed and considered by Trump has been stunning. Such appointments threaten to erode the tradition of not just civilian control of the military, but of government as a whole.

However, in the bizarro world in which we find ourselves as a country, what would evince erosion of democracy in normal circumstances might save it now. Mattis and Kelly have decades of experience with the situations with which the NSC deals. It remains to be seen whether they will be adept at moving from the level of providing military advice to the level of making policy decisions, but we should hope that they make a seamless transition. It will also be worth keeping tabs on whether they, being more accustomed to a different relationship with civilian leaders as uniformed advisers, can stand up to the president if and when they deem it necessary. The image of Mattis standing behind Trump as he signed the ban on travel from seven Muslim countries does not inspire confidence on this note, though reports indicate Mattis may have been blindsided. Even if they can do these things, though, reportedly both Kelly and Mattis have already been clashing with Trump’s White House advisers. They have not been able to get their staff choices nominated, or to agree with the White House on staffing, and have been shut out of at least certain decisions. It remains to be seen how effective they will ultimately be in advising the president and what their impact on the NSC process will be.

As for the requirement that intelligence and the Joint Chiefs, in the persons of the Deputy Director of National Intelligence and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are represented on the DC, I don’t think that difference really changes the above analysis. It is a better thing than not that their presence is required as a matter of course, so that those entities and their input cannot be furtively avoided. But since the DC is a policy crafting and policy implementation body, the PC, the NSC, and the President by himself are free to accept or discard the recommendations that come out of the DC level. Given that the DC is acknowledged as the workhorse of the NSC structure, it might be difficult to strip those viewpoints out of the ultimate decisions. However, the structure is built for individuals operating in some semblance of coordination, and it would be foolish to underestimate the impact of a determined empowered actor working without sharing the same goals of the other members.

I mentioned that the Bush NSC organizational memo contained similar language to potentially cut out the DNI and JCJS in some circumstances. The fact that the current organizational language tracks that should probably worry rather than reassure you. This is because the Bush administration in the instance of the Iraq war is a case study of making decisions while ignoring or rejecting intelligence and military advice. We don’t know for sure what went into the Bush era decision making. This is not only because notes and memos from those meetings won’t be declassified for years to come, but also because the Bush administration “lost” 22 million emails from the period that were housed on a private email server at the Republican National Committee, and it is still publicly unknown if they were ever recovered. Regardless, the fiasco of the Iraq war corresponded with a change in the formal NSC structure allowing the diminution of intelligence and military input, one that tracks what’s been replicated today.

Based on the above, we might wonder why intelligence and military input is still required at the NSC level at all. For one, it’s statutory. The National Security Act explicitly names the DNI and CJCS as advisers to the NSC. While this language only uses the “may” construction and notes their participation is “subject to the direction of the President,” it might be seen as a bigger issue to diminish their role at the highest level. Secondly, it might be something Trump personally would want. We already know Trump likes his generals. He also apparently expects his intelligence leaders around him regularly. It could also be that this point doesn’t matter at all because Trump will rarely if ever attend any NSC meetings. Reports from during the campaign indicated an expectation on his part of handing over policy matters to others, and it remains to be seen how much Trump wants to work on matters that don’t involve television cameras.

It could be that this is all worry over nothing. Maybe the memo reflects simply a desire to move away from any decisions associated with the Obama White House, including the NSC structure, and so simply brings back some language from the Bush era. Maybe the president will have little else to do or that he’s interested in doing, and this will be a golden age of NSC meetings, and the PC will be a vestigial relic during this administration. But I doubt it. The policies that Trump has tried to promulgate since his inauguration represent some of the worst impulses of him and his campaign, and the fact that he is so far attempting to make unprecedented changes by decree means that he and his advisers either don’t know or don’t care about the normal modes of governmental decision making and public policy process. To me, this relays that their moves are deliberate, and the darkest readings of these moves should be at least entertained until disproven.

A Couple Other Interesting Changes

One other change that jumped out is that the Representative to the United Nations, former Governor Nikki Haley, has a seat on the Trump NSC. This is interesting in that appointing the U.N. ambassador is a Democratic rather than Republican play, telegraphing interest in international law, respect for international obligations, and desire to work with the Security Council and the other U.N. organs and organizations. Neither Trump’s campaign nor his governing to date has shown any of these things. This was a feature of both Obama’s and Clinton NSC organizations that was not present in the Bush NSC. This is especially interesting because the position of U.N. ambassador was demoted by Trump to a sub-cabinet position, as it was in the Bush administration. It will remain to be seen whether this signifies a larger than expected role for Haley, and what her impact might be.

This administration also appears to be re-separating to some extent the NSC from the Homeland Security Council. This might be a change that leads to disorganization and burdensome administration, or it might be something that in practice is just words on paper and does not have any affect. The Homeland Security Council might best be seen as a vestige of the ad hoc organizational structures created in the year following September 11, 2001. Initially, then-President George W. Bush created an Office of Homeland Security via executive order. This order set up an Assistant to the President for Homeland Security in the White House staff. Tom Ridge was brought in for this from his position as governor of Pennsylvania. The Bush administration initially resisted the creation of a cabinet level agency on homeland security, and the legislative process creating it that year was contentious.

Ultimately, when the Department of Homeland Security was created, the original White House structure was also replicated in the new statute. The idea of having both a National Security Council and a Homeland Security Council might, appropriately, seem duplicative. The distinctions between what is a national security versus a homeland security issue seem meaningless in many instances. Accordingly, when Barack Obama took office, he merged the two organizations into the NSC. During the last campaign, I vaguely remember some commentators trying to make the usual case that Obama had destroyed the national security structure and made America less safe, but from the perspective that his merging of those two structures was what had done it. My take on this is that the new structure, if it ends up being a new structure in practice, is simply a change for change’s sake away from a decision that Obama made. Probably tellingly, the staff remains merged in the new organizational memo.

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