When fighting bureaucracy means disbanding a pandemics office

Leah Millis/AP/File
President Donald Trump listens as John Bolton, then national security adviser, speaks during a February 2019 presidential memorandum signing. A White House decision to disband the pandemics office in 2018 under Mr. Bolton has come under renewed scrutiny amid the coronavirus crisis.
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For President Donald Trump, the National Security Council (NSC) must have seemed like an ideal place to make good on his pledge to drain the swamp.

Founded more than 70 years ago as an advisory board for the president on matters of national security, it has grown into a bureaucracy of its own – often pulled this way and that by the agendas of those assigned to it. 

Why We Wrote This

“More bureaucracy!” is perhaps not the best rallying cry. But what if streamlining leads to disbanding a pandemics office? The current crisis highlights both sides of the issue.

Among the groups to be disbanded: a pandemics office founded by President Barack Obama, now folded into a broader directorate that works on nuclear proliferation and terrorism. The question today, of course, is: Could it have made any difference? Experts point to one area, in particular, where it could have been helpful. It had expertise to coordinate across different agencies, especially in the early stages of the outbreak.

Without such an office, “can you invent it as a posse at the last minute?” asks a member of President George W. Bush’s NSC. “Yes. But would it be more effective if it’s already on the spot? Yes. And it could act faster.”

When PBS journalist Yamiche Alcindor recently asked President Donald Trump about his decision to disband the National Security Council’s office for pandemics, Mr. Trump said the question was “nasty.”       

But it pointed to a fundamental tension in Mr. Trump’s view of government. Can he “streamline” a government that he feels has become too bloated while maintaining its ability to act effectively?

The administration sees this as essential work, returning the NSC to its core function as an advisory body of several executive branch secretaries serving the president – instead of a growing bureaucracy pursuing a variety of agendas.

Why We Wrote This

“More bureaucracy!” is perhaps not the best rallying cry. But what if streamlining leads to disbanding a pandemics office? The current crisis highlights both sides of the issue.

[Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.]

But some former NSC officers from both Republican and Democratic administrations worry that Mr. Trump has cut into the meat of the NSC. The disbanding of the pandemics office in 2018 under John Bolton, which was then folded into a broader directorate on issues such as nuclear proliferation and terrorism, shows the costs of such downsizing, they say.

“We live in an era of recurrent crises of this kind [like coronavirus] that come with greater velocity, greater impact, and cost, and we need a facility within ... the White House that has the authority to see around corners, see things early, act very quickly, and bring about accountability and coordination of the U.S. response,” says Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “That has been missing” with the disbanding of the White House pandemics office.

“Some of the sluggishness and confusion that we have seen bedevil this effort since the very beginning ... [is connected to the] absence of effective structures within the White House itself,” he adds.

That’s because a pandemics office could have filled a vital role from the first moments of the crisis – coordination. Organizations had to spend valuable time getting on the same page.

“In a crisis like this you don’t go to HHS [Health and Human Services] and ask them to manage it. You go to the White House where presumably you have the expertise developed to work across all the relevant agencies,” says Peter Feaver, who was a strategic planner for President George W. Bush’s NSC.

“Can you invent it as a posse at the last minute? Yes,” he adds, “But would it be more effective if it’s already on the spot? Yes. And it could act faster.”

Moreover, when the pandemics group was moved into a larger directorate, it lost expertise. “Amid a pandemic, we should prefer a team with sufficient seniority to guarantee access and trust,” says Loren DeJonge Schulman, the NSC’s director of defense policy during President Barack Obama’s first term. “These are not matters you want to learn on the job in crisis.”

The National Institutes of Health leader who has become a fixture at daily White House coronavirus briefings acknowledges the team’s absence is felt. “It would be nice if the office was still there,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Congress March 11. 

What is the NSC for?

To Mr. Trump, however, the NSC had become something that was never intended. National security adviser Robert O’Brien said recently that the NSC had “ballooned” to 250 staff members under President Obama. Mr. O’Brien reduced it to 175 when he took his job, and it is now at 110, he added.

“The NSC is not there to re-create the State Department or the Pentagon” within the White House, he said.

But in shrinking, the NSC has become too much of a “yes, sir” body that tells the president what he wants to hear, says Ms. DeJonge Schulman, who is now a national security expert at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

“The NSC staff is not there to implement the president’s every desire, but to make sure he has the best options, evaluation or risk and cost, and perspective on agency views,” she adds.

Some also suspect that the downsizing aims to reduce the number of career officials – the “deep state” – seeing them not as a source of expertise but as a potential den of disloyalty.

“It’s just not the case that the NSC O’Brien took over was too big, especially given the complexity and variety of issues the president has to deal with,” says Mr. Feaver, who is now a public policy professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “What is the case is that Trump didn’t think he needed any NSC staff.”

Mr. Trump’s impeachment was largely launched by a whistleblower assigned to the White House from an outside agency – the CIA. The president’s preoccupation with “the agencies” suggests to Mr. Feaver that the streamlining “is fueled by the same mindset that gives him concern about the so-called deep state, but it reflects a high level of insecurity and a unilateral approach to loyalty.”

Golden days

For his part, Mr. O’Brien says he is trying to return the NSC to the model created by the legendary Brent Scowcroft under President George H.W. Bush – a focus on implementing the president’s policies.

“If you can’t get on board with [the president], you’re probably better off back in your agency or ... running for Congress,” he told a crowd at the Heritage Foundation to laughter.

But others have a different view of Mr. Scowcroft’s legacy. Under Mr. Obama, National security adviser Susan Rice “believed the NSC staff should focus on coordinating policy and advising the president, not implementation that should go to agencies – a fundamentally Scowcroftian view,” says Ms. DeJonge Schulman.

Ms. Rice, too, undertook a “right-sizing effort,” worried that the NSC had begun taking over agency duties. But the NSC’s key role was “making sure agency perspectives get a fair hearing and fair evaluation with the president,” Ms. DeJonge Schulman adds.

Beyond that, there are limits to a model from three decades ago.

“Brent Scowcroft didn’t need an office on cyber, but it’s a necessity now,” says Mr. Feaver. “In the same way, the judgment was made at some point that pandemics were going to become a bigger problem in our current time and so necessitated more high-level attention at the White House.”

To him, “that view has been borne out.”

[Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.]

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