The former head of Breitbart News now has his own seat at the National Security Council table, replacing the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In an executive order the president signed on Saturday, Donald Trump promoted his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, to a permanent member of the Principals Committee, which advises the president on national security and foreign affairs. In the same swoop of the pen, Mr. Trump downgraded the influence of the DNI and the Joint Chiefs chairman. The intelligence and military leaders will attend only meetings “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.”
"We are instilling reforms to make sure that we streamline the process for the president to make decisions on key, important intelligence matters," White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. "What they have done is modernize the National Security Council so that it is less bureaucratic and more focused on providing the president with the intelligence he needs."
Trump has feuded with the intelligence community during his campaign and his transition to the White House, attacking its competence, hierarchy, and allegiances. The committee shake-up shows the ongoing discord between Trump and the defense establishment, as well as offering a window into his administration’s priorities for national security and foreign affairs.
“The security threats facing the United States in the 21st century transcend international boundaries,” reads the presidential memorandum, suggesting a greater emphasis on cyber threats, according to The Wall Street Journal. “Accordingly, the United States government’s decision-making structures and processes to address these challenges must remain equally adaptive and transformative.”
Established during the George H.W. Bush presidency, the National Security Council is a group of agencies that advises the president on foreign affairs and national security. The committee is led by the president’s national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. Prior to the executive order, the Director of National Intelligence and the chairman and Joint Chiefs attended all committee meetings. In addition to Mr. Flynn and Mr. Bannon, regular members will now include: the secretary of state, the treasury secretary, the defense secretary, the attorney general, the secretary of Homeland Security, the chief of staff, and the Homeland Security adviser, according to CNN.
Since taking the position, Bannon has been present for important diplomatic exchanges. Bannon was seen while Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin and British and Israeli prime ministers Theresa May and Benjamin Netanyahu, respectively. But the top Trump adviser's promotion to a permanent member of the committee gives him greater access, and presumably greater influence, over national security and foreign affairs.
The chief architect of Trump’s campaign strategy, Bannon has also been accused of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. His expanded role in the White House was followed on Saturday by the hashtag, #StopPresidentBannon, trending on Twitter.
Mr. Spicer, the White House press secretary, told ABC News on Sunday that the comments by Rice, also former President Obama's national security adviser, were “clearly inappropriate language from a former ambassador.” He cited Bannon’s experience as a naval officer, but added Bannon is “not giving advice” to the president on these subjects.
"He's got a tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape that we have now," Spicer said. "Having key decision makers, and the chief strategist for the United States — for the president to come in and talk about what the strategy is going forward is crucial."
Yet, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin reported on Jan. 19 that the Trump administration’s most influential foreign policy advisers aren’t its Cabinet nominees, but rather Bannon, senior adviser Jared Kushner, and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus.
“Bannon has been working on the long-term strategic vision that will shape the Trump administration's overall foreign policy approach,” wrote Mr. Rogin. “He has a keen interest in Asia, is committed to working on the buildup of the military and is also interested in connecting the Trump apparatus to leaders of populist movements around the world, especially in Europe.”
The overhaul of National Security Council members also has Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona worried. Mr. McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called it a “radical departure from any National Security Council in history.” Since its establishment under former President George W. Bush in 1989, every version of the committee has included the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the DNI.
But drama on the committee isn’t unheard of. Bush’s son and 43rd president, George W. Bush, demanded adviser Karl Rove not attend meetings where national security issues were discussed, according to ABC News.
"It wasn't because he didn't respect Karl's advice or didn't value his input," the younger Bush’s former chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, said at a national security forum in September. "But the president also knew that the signal he wanted to send to the rest of his administration, the signal he wanted to send to the public, and the signal he especially wanted to send to the military is that the decisions I'm making that involve life and death for the people in uniform will not be tainted by any political decisions." [Editor's note: An earlier version attributed this quotation to a different person. The Monitor regrets the error.]
In the case of the Trump White House, an official told The Wall Street Journal that the administration believed “some of the agencies would send people not at the appropriate level and/or people who are neither empowered to make decisions nor represent their departments; that there was too much discussion with too few decisions,” and that the executive order would make the operation “more adaptive to the modern threats that we face.”
Such criticism of the defense establishment comes after Trump has tried to mend ties with the intelligence and defense community. During the campaign and presidential transition, Trump mocked the intelligence community for its mistaken conclusion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 invasion, and accused CIA Director John Brennan of leaking a controversial dossier to the media. But on a Jan. 22 visit to the agency, the president said that "nobody feels stronger about the intelligence community than Donald Trump," saying "I love you. I respect you."
Amid restructuring of the National Security Council, Mr. Flynn will continue to head the Principal Committee meetings. The retired general – who was removed from the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 after feuding the then-head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence – has also drawn criticism for staffing the National Security Council with a cast of officials with heavy military backgrounds, and intent on fighting Islamic extremists and restraining Iran, according to The Wall Street Journal. But as Anne Mulrine Grobe reported for The Christian Science Monitor, this military presence might not be a bad thing.
Despite the impression of generals as shoot-’em-up enthusiasts of bloodshed – which they occasionally enjoy playing into – means that they are also intimately aware of the consequences of war.
In America’s current wars, most have spent a decade-and-a-half figuring out how to best spare civilian lives. There is the mercenary reason that angry civilians generally do not support the aims of the occupying force, but it is also widely believed in an era of modern warfare to be the right thing to do.