Report: Joint Chiefs chair, DNI were removed from top National Security Council committee by … accident?
That isn’t the most interesting detail from this NYT story but it is the newsiest. Is it true, though?
Remember, a few weeks ago two major changes were made to the National Security Council’s Principals Committee. One was Steve Bannon being given a regular seat, an unusual privilege for a political advisor to receive among a collection of natsec professionals. The other was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence being downgraded from regular members of the committee to officers who would sit in on meetings as needed. That move was especially hard to explain. Whatever you think of Bannon, why wouldn’t the DNI and the JCS be included in major natsec huddles?
According to the Times, it was an oopsie:
While the decision to give Mr. Bannon a seat was a conscious one, Mr. Trump’s team did not intend to reduce the role of the intelligence director or Joint Chiefs chairman, officials said. In crafting their organization order, the officials said, Mr. Trump’s aides essentially cut and pasted language from Mr. Bush’s organization chart, substituting the national intelligence director for the C.I.A. director, who back then was the head of the nation’s spy agencies.
What Mr. Trump’s team did not realize, officials said, was that Mr. Obama’s organization chart made those two positions full members of the committee.
Nothing wrong with reverting to Bush’s organizational approach if you’re doing it for a substantive reason. If you’re doing it only because you’re cribbing off the wrong cheat sheet, that’s … not terrific, as Trump might say. Here’s a theory, though: With H.R. McMaster newly empowered to reorganize the NSC as he sees fit and (probably) reinstate the Joint Chiefs chair and the DNI to regular seats on the Principals Committee, maybe this “we goofed” explanation is just spin. It might be less embarrassing for the White House to chalk the demotions up to a typo than to admit that they were done deliberately and that their new national security advisor thinks that was a stupid idea. In this case, accusing Mike Flynn of having cribbed from the wrong document may result in the White House losing less face than the truth would.
Which brings us to the most interesting detail from the story:
Another likely change would reincorporate the Homeland Security Council under the National Security Council, the way it was during the administration of President Barack Obama, the officials said. The decision to separate the Homeland Security staff, they said, was primarily a way to diminish the power of Mr. McMaster’s predecessor, Michael T. Flynn, who resigned last week. Now that Mr. Flynn is out and Mr. McMaster is in, both councils may report to him.
That makes twice, at least, that Team Trump intentionally diluted Flynn’s power during his brief tenure. The other instance was the appointment of Tom Bossert as a counterterrorism advisor tasked with reporting directly to Trump instead of to Flynn. There may be a third example too: It’s possible that the reason Bannon got his seat on the Principals Committee (and set up his “shadow National Security Council,” the Strategic Initiatives Group) was because Team Trump didn’t trust Flynn entirely and wanted to keep an eye on him. That may be for petty reasons, i.e. because Bannon wanted some of Flynn’s authority over national security for himself, or it may be for more meaningful reasons, namely, because the White House was suspicious of Flynn for whatever reason. At least one media report over the last few weeks claimed that Trump grew “uncomfortable” with Flynn over time. Another story published last week cited a Senate staffer who alleged Jim Mattis told Republican senators during meetings before his confirmation hearing that he thought Flynn was “crazy.” It brings me back to a theory that a friend suggested to me after Flynn’s resignation — that Team Trump never really wanted him as national security advisor due to their many misgivings about him but felt obliged to give him a shot because he was a very loyal surrogate during the campaign and a very experienced intelligence officer. At the first sign of trouble, though, they may have been prepared to shoot him out of the airlock. And so they did. Now that a non-crazy and very able officer like McMaster is in charge and doesn’t need anyone riding herd on him, maybe Bannon will step back — although probably not. According to the Times, “One senior official supportive of Mr. Bannon’s position said it would not change under any reorganization.”
Here’s video of McMaster from a few years ago telling Jake Tapper that if America betrays its values in conducting the war on terror, it’ll lose — a not very Trump-y position. McMaster holds a lot of not so Trump-y positions, as it turns out.