President Donald Trump’s national security adviser is relying on a new layer of hand-picked aides on the National Security Council that some professional staffers worry will serve as a “barrier” between them and top officials.
The moves by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn are stoking fears of an even more insular decision-making process than reigned during the Obama administration, which was roundly criticized for micromanaging national security and eroding the influence of the Pentagon, State Department and other agencies. And it is prompting some frustrated career staffers in the primary policymaking body inside the White House, who had been asked to stay on under Trump, to consider departing instead, say multiple sources with direct knowledge.
On Thursday, Flynn announced he has hired four top new deputies, all holding the title of deputy assistant to the president and responsible for broad portfolios — from economics to regional affairs and strategic planning.
“You will not have the experts in the room when the principals are having these discussions,” worries one NSC veteran who has heard complaints from White House officials this week. The person, like others, agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.
“They are not being used,” added another source with direct knowledge of the developments, who similarly expressed concern that the Trump team is “doubling down on cutting out the professional experts.”
“They have been emasculated and have no authority,” the source added. “But they are still getting hammered by agencies and allies and don’t know what to tell them. … Many are heading for the exits.”
The concerns come after Trump granted his political strategist, Steve Bannon, who is separately constructing his own power center inside the West Wing, membership on the highest rung of the National Security Council, traditionally reserved for Cabinet chiefs. Permitting a political operative to participate in the high-level meetings was seen by many as a dangerous break with tradition and prompted at least one member of Congress to recommend that the 1947 law that created the body be changed.
The staffing deliberations also come after reports that the president and his senior aides did not fully consult with his secretaries of Homeland Security and Defense before issuing a controversial executive order temporarily banning travel to the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries.
The small coterie of advisers fall under Flynn — and above the senior directors of the NSC staff who are organized around regions of the world and security threats such as terrorism or weapons of mass destruction.
Joining the inner circle are David Cattler, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official who will oversee regional affairs; John Eisenberg, a former Justice Department official who will be the NSC’s top legal adviser; longtime Commerce and State Department official Kenneth Juster, who will steer economic policy; and Kevin Harrington, most recently the managing director and head of research for Thiel Macro LLC, a San Francisco-based global macro hedge fund. Harrington will be responsible for strategic planning.
The White House declined to address questions about the new layer of personnel at the top levels of the NSC structure — and none was identified in an executive order that Trump signed on Saturday laying out its overall makeup and membership.
But a spokesman told POLITICO that Flynn intends to rely on a smaller staff and “run a very precise and orderly and quick process.” The spokesman cited the fact that there is now one executive secretary for both the NSC and the companion Homeland Security Council, which includes many of the same members and relies on much of the same staff.
Officials regularly criticized the Obama administration for ballooning the size of the NSC and shutting out Cabinet-level departments. In last year’s defense bill, Congress passed a provision limiting future NSC staffs to 200 people to prevent overreach — although scholars have questioned whether such a limit is constitutional.
There is wide bipartisan support for shrinking the NSC.
“Everybody has been saying for years that the NSC was too big and too micro-managerial,” said Steve Sestanovich, a top State Department official in the 1990s who served on the NSC in the administration of President Ronald Reagan. “If the new administration is willing to take that problem on, more power to them.”
Flynn said at a think tank discussion last month that “our mission is to ensure the president and the national security community is committed to carrying out necessary reforms.” And in a brief memo to Cabinet departments this week he pledged that he and his team “will be working closely with you and your teams.”
But longtime participants on the NSC deliberations from both parties expressed concern that the early signs portend the same type of micromanagement under Trump as under Obama — or worse.
“What you’re seeing here is two things: one, a total politicizing of the national security apparatus, and two, a second power center being created,” said another Obama NSC veteran. “It’s the place policy will get made, and it will push aside career NSC staffers.”
Indeed, in terms of the day-to-day operations, the Trump order issued on Saturday outlining the basic structure of the National Security Council is viewed by many as failing to address the Obama White House’s management problems.
For example, it similarly mandates that members of the NSC staff chair regional and issue-related policy coordination committees, sometimes known as interagency working groups, and can invite representatives from executive departments where they deem appropriate.
“It means you’ve got the White House in the room the whole time,” said Vikram Singh, who previously served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia during the Obama administration. “This sounds like a continuation, ironically.”
Coupled with the rise of political influence in the body, the continuation of NSC control of policy coordination committees demonstrates that Republicans are casting aside previous criticisms now that they are in the White House, said Loren Schulman, who served as senior adviser to Obama’s last national security adviser, Susan Rice. “It tells me they want to increase the amount of coordination through the White House,” she said. “They haven’t put their money where their mouth is.”
Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser for President George W. Bush, said the overall structure as laid out in the executive order “won’t fix that problem” of micromanagement. “It depends on how it is used. But I know Flynn and company want to bring things back to the more strategic level and get out of the micromanaging detail.”
Sestanovich, however, warned that a smaller organization could create its own problems. “If the NSC staff is smaller, does that mean other bureaucracies do what they want with less oversight, or that the White House calls the shots from a smaller knowledge base and with less consultation?”
For others, the unfolding setup is even more concerning given the slow pace at which the Trump administration has staffed top security and intelligence posts in the Pentagon, State Department and other key agencies.
“What do you have to coordinate if you’re having trouble staffing?” asked Heather Hurlburt, who previously served on President Bill Clinton’s NSC. “It kind of gives another meaning to micromanage.”
Coordinating more with Cabinet departments than was the case with the immigration ban will also make for better decisions, advises Nicholas Burns, who served on the NSC under presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton.
“I would like to believe these are just the operational mistakes of the first 10 days in office and they will do better,” Burns said. “The system works best when the president trusts its leading secretaries and delegates to them.”
Source : Politico
By: Gregory Hellman and Bryan Bender