The first couple of weeks of Trump’s administration have been hectic. While in the past, the first 100 days of a president’s administration have been the gage of success, Trump may have changed the standard to what a president does in the first couple of weeks.
Amidst the executive orders on immigration and deregulation, one order that received little attention, was one that outlined the Trump National Security Council (NSC). Yet, it will have just as big an impact as other orders signed in the past couple of weeks.
Unlike the Department of Defense and Department of State, the National Security Council can be molded much as the president wants it. In some cases, presidents have used it little, while relying more on the State Department. In other cases, the National Security Council was the mainstay of the president’s foreign policy.
It was clear from the choice of General Flynn, that Trump will focus more on the National Security Council for advice. Flynn is a retired US Army general who was the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 – 2014. He has held several positions in combat units and has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He left the DIA because he disagreed with the White House on the threat of al Qaeda and ISIS. As a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, it’s obvious that Trump will place more trust in him than in others of the intelligence community, which Trump has already had some policy tangles with. In addition, Flynn campaigned extensively for Trump in 2016 and was a potential vice presidential choice. He also attended the intelligence briefings for candidate and president-elect Trump.
Close Presidential Advisors and the NSC
Flynn isn’t the only close Trump advisor that will attend NSC meetings. There is also Steve Bannon. Trump confidant Steve Bannon was added as a principal to the NSC meetings in the executive order. Bannon was CEO of the Trump campaign and an executive for Breitbart, a conservative internet news site. During the election, they were solidly pro-Trump and covered many issues that the pro-Clinton mainstream media refused to cover.
It’s not unusual for a president to allow a close personal advisor to have impact on foreign or national security policy. In the case of Obama, it was Valerie Jarrett. In fact, Robert M. Gates, former Secretary of Defense, objected in his memoirs to her involvement in foreign security affairs.
However, President George W. Bush’s last chief of staff, Josh Bolten, barred Karl Rove, Bush’s political adviser, from NSC meetings – a logical step as Rove didn’t have any national security experience.
Supporters of Bannon, however, justify his inclusion stating that he has national security experience, which Jarrett and Rove didn’t have. They point out that Bannon is a former Naval Officer who qualified as a Surface Warfare Officer, who served in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. He was also the Deputy Assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations for Decision Coordination at the Pentagon. He was augmented from Naval Reserve to Regular Navy, which is only offered to the best officers. He also holds a master's degree in National Security Studies from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.
Bannon is thought to be the key architect behind several of the recent executive orders signed by the new administration as well as Trump's fiery inaugural address. In an interview last week attacking the media, Bannon clearly demonstrated the brash attitude that likely ingratiated him with the President and secured him a top spot in the Trump White House
Clearly, Bannon will represent a blend of politics and national security experience that can advise the president on political implications of national security decisions. He will be the point man on explaining national security issues to the voters.
The NSC, Musical Chairs, and the Politics of Who is on Top
Any change in the members of the National Security Council has political implications as observers look to see who has gained more political power and who has lost it.
Some see Bannon as becoming as important as Flynn. However, Flynn is in charge of the presidential intelligence briefing and will remain the pipeline of intelligence. This may partially explain why the Director of the CIA wasn’t included in the Trump Executive Order that didn’t make the Director of the CIA a regular attendee to NSC meetings, although the Director of National Intelligence was included.
There was also some concern when the executive order showed the Director of CIA wasn’t included in the NSC meeting team. That changed on Monday. “The president has such respect for [CIA] Director [Mike] Pompeo and the men and women of the CIA that today the president is announcing that he will amend the memo to add the CIA back into the NSC,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Monday.
According to Politico, "the elevation could create friction between the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence", which is the likely reason why Trump is proceeding with the power shift. The power grab among the US spy agencies started in 2005, when the DNI replaced the CIA director on the NSC after Congress created the Department of National Intelligence to oversee the entire intelligence apparatus.
The CIA is considered the most powerful member of the intelligence community, and prior to the creation of the DNI, the CIA director coordinated the other agencies’ activities.
Clashes between the directors of National Intelligence and the CIA aren’t unusual and limited to the Trump Administration. Obama’s CIA director and his DNI clashed early in his first term over participation in the meetings.
It is unclear if Trump also plans on changing the overall org chart of US intelligence agencies as a result, and pushing the CIA back into its former leadership role. Much will depend on how Trump perceives the quality of DNI intelligence product in the next few months.
Another potential loser in the NSC stakes, according to observers, is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, the law strictly restricts the role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in national security affairs.
Following the Goldwater–Nichols Act in 1986, the Joint Chiefs of Staff do not have operational command authority, neither individually nor collectively, as the chain of command goes from the President to the Secretary of Defense, and from the Secretary of Defense to the Commanders of the Combatant Commands.
Today, the primary responsibility of the JCS is to ensure the personnel readiness, policy, planning and training of their respective military services for the combatant commanders to utilize.
Goldwater–Nichols makes the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the principal military adviser to the Secretary of Defense, the Homeland Security Council, the National Security Council and the President. This means that if the issue at a NSC meeting requires the advice of a military advisor, the Chairman must be included. However, not all national security decisions require a uniformed member of the military, which means they do not need to be mandatory regular members of the team.
How the NSC team evolves over the next four years is still unknown. Given the military experience of its members (from Mattis, to Flynn, to Kelly, to Bannon), it has more military experience than any NSC team for decades.
All three generals are known for not being “yes men” and will strongly disagree with Trump, if necessary. Supporters of Trump advocating that Their advice will be based on decades of experience, not ideological judgments made in the field of academia – as was the case with the Obama Administration.
It is expected to see that experience show, especially in the Middle East. All three have fought in the Middle East and the challenge is to provide the president with realistic strategies to defeat ISIS quickly as he boasted in the past.
This team should also provide Trump with a better understanding of NATO – its strengths and weaknesses. Each one of these generals (and Bannon) began their careers as company grade officers fighting Russia in the Cold War. They have a better understanding of Russia, its capabilities and historical strategic goals than many realize.
Expect Flynn to be the intelligence expert and information pipeline, while Mattis will be the “warrior” who will give the advice on how to win. Mattis, as the former think tank fellow of the group, will also end up as being seen as the intellectual of the team.
Kelly will have the experience on domestic security, especially in terms of illegal immigration. And as a Marine officer, he and Bannon will be able to give advice on projecting power overseas.
Bannon, as a former Naval Surface Warfare Officer who served in the Pacific, will have an “in the trenches” view of how to counter Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.
Although there will be complaints about the NSC team, and some observers are predicting clashes among the generals and with other NSC members, it appears that it will be tested soon and especially on how to handle policy toward Iran, Ukraine/Russian conflict and the Syrian crisis.