With the media firestorm generated by President Trump’s executive order on immigration, some news outlets were slow to pick up on another controversial and potentially more important president directive: Presidential National Security Memorandum 2, which Trump issued two days ago. That presidential memorandum (contrary to this New York Times article, it was not an executive order) laid out the organizational structure that will presumable help guide Trump’s national security poliycmaking process (including homeland security issues) during his presidency. Among the details, the directive stipulated that controversial White House political strategist Steve Bannon was one of those “invited as attendees to any NSC meeting.” Bannon was also extended an invitation to regularly attend the national security principals’ meetings as well (those meetings of the highest ranking NSC members not attended by Trump). At the same time, Trump’s memorandum directed that the director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff only attend Principals Committee meetings when “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed,” which many in the media interpreted as a downgrading of their positions. Under Obama, by comparison, no White House political strategist was extended such a courtesy, (although Obama’s chief of staff was invited) while both the DNI and the JCS chair were regular invitees.
Not surprisingly, the decision to extend Bannon a permanent invitation to participate in the national security policymaking process generated a negative reaction from a range of individuals in both parties, including Republican Arizona Senator John McCain and former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice, who reportedly called the decision “stone cold crazy”. David Rothkopf, who has written a couple of histories of the NSC, penned an op ed piece in the Washington Post that included this dire warning: “…Bannon is the precisely wrong person for this wrong role. His national security experience consists of a graduate degree and seven years in the Navy. More troubling, Bannon’s role as chairman of Breitbart.com, with its racist, misogynist and Islamophobic perspectives, and his avowed desire to blow up our system of government, suggests this is someone who not only has no business being a permanent member of the most powerful consultative body in the world — he has no business being in a position of responsibility in any government.”
Even Bette Midler took time to tweet her concern:
#Trump‘s reshuffling US National Security Council (NSC), DOWNGRADING THE MILITARY CHIEFS OF STAFF! Giving a regular seat Steve Bannon! WHY?”
What is one to make of this reaction? With all due respect to the Divine Miss M’s foreign policy chops, I want to make the argument here that giving Bannon a formal place at the national security table is probably a good idea, given the fact that he’s probably going to play an important role in Trump’s national security process whether he sits in on meetings or not. Nor do I agree that the directive necessarily indicates a demotion for the JCS chair or DNI. However, there are other aspects of Trump’s order – aspects ignored by the critics – that worry me far more than the formal status for any single individual, including Bannon.
A little bit of background to Trump’s directive will help put it in historical context. Every recent president has, very early in their administration, issued a directive similar to Trump’s that lays down the organizational template for national security policymaking. Again, here’s the full text of Trump’s presidential memorandum. And here is Obama’s comparable directive and George W. Bush’s. As you can see, despite the difference in titles (Obama’s is labeled a Presidential Policy Directives, or PPD, while Bush’s is a National Security Policy Directive, or NSPD) they adopt a similar format. But neither Bush nor Obama included a White House political strategist as a regular attendee. Indeed, according to former Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten, Bush explicitly forbid his chief political strategist Karl Rove from sitting in on NSC meetings, for fear that it would signal that political considerations tainted his national security policymaking process. Although Obama’s political strategist David Axelrod occasionally attended Obama’s national security meetings, he was not listed as a regular attendee and did not actively participate in deliberations. However, both Bush and Obama did include their White House chief of staffs as regular invitees. It bears noting that in Obama’s case, Rahm Emanuel, who was Obama’s first chief of staff, was very influential in devising political strategy for the President.
In thinking about the ramifications of Bannon’s appointment, it is worth keeping in mind a couple of points. First, Trump’s presidential memorandum is only a blueprint – it is a first stab by the President at deciding how to decide – but it is issued when Trump has very little experience in running the NSC process, and before anyone really knows how personalities will, or won’t, interact. So we should not read too much into this document in terms of projecting who will run the show, and based on what input. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the early evidence if media reports are to be believed (see Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration) suggests that Bannon is already playing a key role in the making of national security policy. By virtue of his location in the West Wing, and his regular meetings with
Obama Trump it seems clear that Bannon is going to make his views on national security policy known to Trump whether he’s on the invite list to NSC meetings or not. Given this reality, in some ways it might be more helpful to Trump if Bannon is exposed to alternative views in the formal NSC deliberative process – and if Bannon’s views are subject to formal critique as well. Finally, one might argue that a pure separation of national security strategy and politics is not only unfeasible – it’s a bad idea. Politics matters even in the national security realm – if you lack a strategy for developing political support for a policy, it is likely to be more difficult to implement. In short, politics does not stop at the water’s edge.
Let me conclude with three additional observations. To begin, some of the most important details are left unsaid in this memo – specifically, the number and composition of the policy coordinating committees (PCC’s) which apparently will replace Obama’s interagency committees as the first level of policy development. One of the problems recent NSC staff structures have had is the proliferation of lower-level committees, and attendant meetings that sucked up an incredible amount of participants’ time. Each meeting requires an agenda, staff preparation, meeting minutes, etc., and in previous administrations many participants in the process complain that they were too focused on the administrative requirements of preparing and holding meetings, and less on policy development and articulation. One can get a sense of the number of these PCC’s by looking at Bush’s initial 2001 memo, which established six regional PCC’s and 11 functional ones. That’s a lot of paper pushing! We shall see how Trump’s process unfolds at the lower level, which is in some respects more important than who sits on the principals committee, since it is where many policies are first incubated.
Second, a presidential memorandum can only provide a template for decisionmaking – ultimately, Trump’s priorities will decide which issues make it from the PCC’s up through the deputies’ level to the principals and the NSC. Issues that Trump does not prioritize will get resolved through interagency deliberation at the lower level. The key for any White House process is determining which issues rise to the top, and which do not. In recent administrations, the NSC staff structure has become so large and unwieldy that it has developed a tendency to suck up lower-level issues into the President’s orbit when these should be more properly resolved before reaching the President’s desk. The effectiveness of Trump’s deliberations will depend in part on how widely and deeply he wants to get involved in the policy weeds, and whether his staff process can separate the substantive policy wheat from the chaff.
Third, since at least Brent Scowcroft’s time as George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser (see his directive here), the national security adviser – in Trump’s case Michael Flynn – has managed the national security policymaking process, chairing the principals’ meeting, orchestrating the paperwork, etc. To be effective in this role, Flynn needs Trump’s full support, so that no one (read: Bannon!) is rewarded for going around Flynn to try to influence Trump outside the formal deliberative process. At the same time, Flynn must cultivate a reputation for being an honest broker who presents all views to Trump, particularly when there is disagreement among key advisers. This is a difficult task and historically one that often leads to friction with cabinet members, particularly the Secretary of State. Again, I have no idea how well Flynn is suited to this task – early reports raise questions – but it will go a long way toward determining how effective Trump’s national security policymaking process is.
My takeaway point, however, is that Bannon’s influence on the national security policymaking process is not likely to be determined by whether he participates in formal NSC deliberations – it’s going to come from his direct access to Trump via the Oval Office daily meetings. Although symbolism matters in Washington in terms of signaling who is important, the real currency for any presidential aide is face time with the President. Bannon’s going to get that whether he’s formally on the NSC and principals invite list or not, in my view. Given that reality, forcing him to justify his views in a more formal deliberative process may not be such a bad idea.