President Donald Trump signed memorandums on Saturday that kicked the nation’s top military and intelligence advisers off the National Security Council’s (NSC) Principals Committee and elevated his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, in their place.
The memorandum gives Bannon, former executive chair of the rightwing website Breitbart News, a regular seat at some of the most sensitive meetings at the highest levels of government, along with other NSC meetings.
The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – who need to be confirmed by the Senate – will now only attend the meetings when discussions pertain to their “responsibilities and expertise,” the memo states.
“This is unusual,” writes John Bellinger at Lawfare Blog. “[T]he NSC function usually does not include participants from the political side of the White House.”
Under former President George W. Bush, for example, Karl Rove did not attend NSC meetings, Bellinger noted. “According to former Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, President Bush did not want to appear, especially to the military, to insert domestic politics into national security decisionmaking.”
Additionally, while Bannon has been granted this privileged access, CIA director Mike Pompeo has not – another break with tradition, Bellinger wrote.
Both Bush and former President Barack Obama gave the DNI and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff regular seats on their councils.
Bellinger notes other irregularities:
“The NSC executive secretary (General Keith Kellogg) ‘shall’ attend all Principals Committee and Deputies Committee meetings. This is also unusual. The executive secretary in the Bush administration was generally too busy and did not attend NSC or PC meetings.”
“The Deputies Committee will have at least 14 regularly invited participants and potentially 19 or more. This will be unwieldy.”
CNN national security correspondent Jim Sciutto called Bannon’s placement on the committee “unprecedented.”
“You’re putting in someone who is not Senate confirmed and taking out the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence, who need to be Senate confirmed,” Sciutto told CNN‘s Jake Tapper. “It raises questions about whose voices will be most prominent about key national-security decisions in the country.”
Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates likewise told ABC on Sunday that excluding the DNI and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was “a big mistake.”
“Under law, there are only two statutory advisers to the National Security Council – the DNI, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Gates said. “Pushing them out [is] a big mistake. They both bring perspective, judgment, and experience to bear that every president – whether they like it or not – finds useful.”
MSNBC‘s Joy Reid summed it up thus: “To reiterate, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been removed from the National Security Council and replaced with a white nationalist. Worry.”
The memo was issued amid a second series of executive orders in Trump’s first full week in office, including ordering the Pentagon to devise a plan in 30 days to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). The president also held several calls with foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President François Hollande, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Bannon joined Trump for all of those calls.
The move also affirms Bannon’s rise just after Trump echoed the strategist’s recent comments that the media is “the opposition party.”