Trump just made a sweeping, unprecedented change to the National Security Council

President Donald Trump signed a presidential memorandum Saturday that removed the nation’s top military and intelligence advisers as regular attendees of the National Security Council’s Principals Committee, the interagency forum that deals with policy issues affecting national security.

The executive measure established Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon as a regular attendee, whereas the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence will be allowed to participate only “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.”

“This is unusual,” John Bellinger, an adjunct senior fellow in International and National Security Law at the Council on Foreign Relations and former legal adviser to the National Security Council, wrote on Saturday.

“In the Bush administration, Karl Rove would not attend NSC meetings,” Bellinger said. “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 decision-making.”

With his permanent seat at the NSC meetings, Bannon has been elevated above the director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, who was not offered an open invitation.

“The CIA Director is typically invited to NSC and Principals Committee meetings,” Bellinger said, though he added that President Barack Obama’s list of invitees to such meetings did not include the CIA director.

CNN national security correspondent Jim Sciutto noted on Sunday that the move was “certainly 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 told ABC on Sunday morning that sidelining the DNI and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was “a big mistake.”

“Adding people to the NSC never really bothers me,” Gates said, referring to Bannon’s new role on the committee. “My biggest concern is that, under law, there are only two statutory advisers to the National Security Council — the DNI, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

“Pushing them out,” Gates said, is “a big mistake. They both bring perspective, judgment, and experience to bear that every president — whether they like it or not — finds useful.”

A ‘shadow National Security Council’
The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported before Trump was sworn in that Bannon, Jared Kushner, and Reince Priebus comprised an informal “shadow national security council” that “sits atop the Trump transition team’s executive committee and has the final say on national-security personnel appointments.”

Jared Kushner is Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. Priebus is Trump’s chief of staff.

“Bannon has been working on the long-term strategic vision that will shape the Trump administration’s overall foreign policy approach,” Rogin reported, citing transition officials.He “is committed to working on the buildup of the military and is also interested in connecting the Trump apparatus to leaders of populist movements around the world, especially in Europe.”

Prior to joining the Trump campaign, Bannon was the CEO of the far-right website Breitbart News — a website known for its antiestablishment, white-nationalist positions on issues such as immigration and trade. A week into his presidency, Trump has already prioritized a number of agenda items that reflect Bannon’s own nationalist views, including a border wall and a crackdown on immigration and refugee admissions. He also echoed Bannon’s claim that “the media is the opposition party.“

The committee will be chaired by former Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, and Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Trump’s secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, have seats on the committee, but they “begin at a disadvantage,” Rogin said.

They will be “fighting for influence in a team of strong personalities who are busily carving up issues, making plans and nurturing already close relationships” with Trump, Rogin wrote, referring to Bannon, Kushner, and Priebus.

The secretary of energy and director of the Office of Management and Budget were also removed from the committee’s list of “regular members,” and the deputy secretary of state will no longer be invited to every committee meeting. The chair of the Council of Economic Advisers will not be invited even “when issues to be discussed pertain to their responsibilities and expertise.”

Unilateral moves
Trump already seems to be marginalizing the influence of career officials with extensive federal experience at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the State Department, the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Justice Department.

On Saturday, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani told Foxthat he helped draft Trump’s “extreme vetting” executive order after Trump called him and asked how to do a “Muslim ban” “legally.”Officials told CNN that the order was a unilateral move.

Department of Homeland Security staff, the officials said, were only allowed to see the order barring refugees from the US after Trump signed it, and National Security Council lawyers were prevented from evaluating it. The State Department and the DoD were also excluded from the process, NBC reported.

After seeing the order, the DHS interpreted it to mean that green card holders from the banned countries — who have already been subjected to intense vetting — would be allowed to reenter the US from trips abroad. But that interpretation was overruled by the White House, which later said that green card holders would be allowed in only on a “case-by-case” basis.

“The policy team at the White House developed the executive order on refugees and visas,” CNN reported, “and largely avoided the traditional interagency process that would have allowed the Justice Department and homeland security agencies to provide operational guidance.”

As a result, the order was imprecise and open to interpretation — and legal challenges.

The order “looks like what an intern came up with over a lunch hour,” an immigration lawyer told Benjamin Wittes, the editor-in-chief of Lawfare and a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “My take is that it is so poorly written that it’s hard to tell the impact.”

“The president has created a target-rich environment for litigation” with the order,” Wittes wrote.

Lawyers and civil-rights organizations were already challenging the constitutionality of the ban hours after it was signed, arguing that the ban violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by “explicitly disapproving of one religion and implicitly preferring others.”

Lawyers representing two Iraqi refugees who were detained at John F. Kennedy airport in New York filed legal challenges to the order, and a federal judge in Brooklyn issued an emergency ruling Saturday evening to stay the continued deportation of travelers.

The ruling, a temporary emergency stay, now allows those who landed in the US and hold a valid visa to remain. Federal judges in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Washington also made emergency rulings on various aspects of the executive order.

Stephen "Steve" Bannon, chief strategist for U.S. President Donald Trump, arrives to a swearing in ceremony of White House senior staff in the East Room of the White House on Sunday, Jan. 22. Andrew Harrer /Bloomberg via Getty Images

White House Defends Putting Bannon on National Security Council

White House officials defended President Donald Trump’s move to give top political strategist Stephen Bannon a permanent spot on the National Security Council while limiting the role of the Director of National Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“We are instilling reforms to make sure that we streamline the process for the president to make decisions on key, important intelligence matters,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

In a presidential memorandum issued Saturday, Bannon, 63, a former executive at Breitbart News, was given a permanent spot on the NSC’s principals committee, the senior-level interagency group that considers major national security policy issues. Others with permanent seats on the White House policy council include the secretary of state and secretary of defense.

Under the new policy, however, the Director of National Intelligence and the chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff will attend only “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed,” according to the memo. Both were permanent members under President Barack Obama, but had a similar ad hoc status under President George W. Bush.

Republican John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday he was concerned that adding Bannon to the council while leaving out Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was a “radical departure.”

Rice’s Criticism

The changes also drew sharp criticism from Obama’s National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, who said in a Twitter message that the moves were “stone cold crazy.”

“Who needs military advice or [intelligence] to make policy on ISIL, Syria, Afghanistan, DPRK?” she chided.

Rice also criticized aspects of the order that would let Vice President Mike Pence chair meetings of the council in lieu of the president, and reduced the role of the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

Spicer called Rice’s criticism “clearly inappropriate” and said “the president gets plenty of information from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

The changes were intended to “modernize the National Security Council so that it is less bureaucratic and more focused on providing the president with the intelligence he needs,” Spicer said.

The White House spokesman also defended Bannon’s inclusion in the group, saying the aide was a “former naval officer” with a “tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape that we have now.”

Populist Sentiment

Bannon has become one of the president’s most trusted, and most contentious, advisers for his ability to channel the populist and nationalist sentiment that helped propel Trump to the Oval Office. In his job at Breitbart, Bannon called the website a platform for the “alt-right,” a brand of conservatism known for frequent inflammatory statements on race and other issues.

Bob Gates, Obama’s defense secretary and a veteran of the NSC and CIA, said in an interview on the same ABC broadcast that while he wasn’t concerned about Bannon’s inclusion, he did believe pushing the DNI and military out of meetings was a “big mistake.”

“They both bring a perspective and judgement and experience to bear that every president, whether they like it or not, finds useful,” Gates said.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus downplayed the move, saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the intelligence director and chairman of the joint chiefs would be “included as attendees anytime they want to be included.”

Still, the moves raise questions about whether the role of the DNI, which was created to better coordinate intelligence agencies after the Sept. 11 attacks, would diminish under the Trump administration.

Flynn as Gatekeeper

Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, resigned in 2014 from his job as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency amid pressure from James Clapper, who was director of national intelligence under Obama. Flynn also clashed with others in the Obama administration over his management style and priorities.

Spicer said that “you’ve got a leader in General Flynn who understands the intelligence process and the reforms that are needed probably better than anybody else.”

But Flynn’s role as a White House gatekeeper on national security also has been questioned because -- unlike Defense Secretary James Mattis and other officials in the new administration -- he shares Trump’s optimism about efforts to forge better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With National Security Council Shakeup, Steve Bannon Gets A Seat At The Table

President Trump has reorganized the National Security Council by elevating his chief strategist Steve Bannon and demoting the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Now, Bannon will join the NSC's principals committee, the top inter-agency group for discussing national security. The National Security Council is the staff inside the White House that coordinates decision making by the president on such matters, in coordination with outside departments including the State Department and the Pentagon.

It's an unusual decision, NPR's Mara Liasson reported. "David Axelrod, for instance, who had a similar job as Bannon in the Obama administration, never sat in on Principals meetings," she added. When such figures seen as part of the political wing of the White House have participated in broader National Security Council meetings, it's sparked sharp criticism from the national security establishment.

Former White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten said last year that President George W. Bush instructed his top political adviser, Karl Rove, never to appear at a National Security Council meeting.

It wasn't that Bush didn't value Rove's counsel, Bolten said – clearly he did.

"But the president also knew that the signal he wanted to send to the rest of his administration, the signal he wanted to send to the public, and the signal he especially wanted to send to the military, is that 'the decisions I'm making that involve life and death for the people in uniform will not be tainted by any political decisions," Bolten remembered.

Before joining Donald Trump's inner circle during the 2016 campaign, Bannon was the head of Breitbart News, a far-right media outlet that has promoted conspiracy theories and is a platform for the alt-right movement, which espouses white nationalism.

Bannon was extremely influential during the first week of the administration – he is said to be part of a small group inside the White House driving the flurry of executive actions this week, Mara Liasson has reported.

Some of those orders have provoked criticism that Bannon and other administration officials are not coordinating with other agencies on major policy changes, Mara says, such as the chaos and detentions at airports following Trump's executive order on immigration.

The NSC principals committee is defined as "the Cabinet-level senior interagency forum for considering policy issues that affect the national security interests of the United States." It's chaired either by national security advisor Michael Flynn or homeland security advisor Tom Bossert and now includes the secretaries of state, defense and the Treasury, plus the attorney general, White House chief of staff and the president's chief strategist, which is Bannon's position.

On the other hand, the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will now attend Principals Committees meetings only when "issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed," according to the presidential memorandum issued on Saturday.

As NPR national security editor Philip Ewing explains, Trump "is shaking up the wonky process by which the executive branch makes its toughest decisions on national security – the big question is how much that will matter." Here's more:
"On paper, these are big changes: Past administrations ran their National Security Councils with a Great Wall of China-separation between the political team at the White House and the nonpartisan specialists who help with decision-making. The explicit inclusion of Bannon means that Trump's top adviser on messaging, strategy and other partisan issues means he could also be part of decisions about policy toward adversaries, military actions and other such decisions.
"What does it all mean, in practical terms? It's too soon to say. Former national security council staffers say their day-to-day meetings and process were not governed by whatever formal instruction issued by their respective presidents. Political staffers from the White House have attended meetings in the past. The committees invite who they think they need to invite given the topics under discussion – something that will likely continue under [National Security Advisor Michael] Flynn."
Attorney John Bellinger, who served on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, told NPR's Weekend All Things Considered on Sunday that presidents structure the National Security Council in the ways they think work best for them.

"There's no law against the president taking advice from anyone he wants," Bellinger said.

He also said the headlines about the "demotion" of the Joint Chiefs chairman and the director of national intelligence were overblown. Bellinger said time would tell how the council practically operates under Trump and Flynn, but that some of its dealings legitimately might not need to involve those leaders – when leaders meet to plot their strategy for responding to a hurricane, for example.

Top security officials from the Obama administration are blasting the decision.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served under Obama and George W. Bush, called the demotions a "big mistake" in an interview with ABC News. " I think that they both bring a perspective and judgment and experience to bear that every president, whether they like it or not, finds useful," Gates said.

Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice called the move "stone cold crazy." In a sarcastic tweet, she said: "Who needs military advice or intel to make policy on ISIL, Syria, Afghanistan, DPRK?"

White House press secretary Sean Spicer responded in an interview with ABC News. "That's clearly inappropriate language from a former ambassador," Spicer said. "We are instilling reforms to make sure that we streamline the process for the president to make decisions on key, important intelligence matters. You've got a leader in General Flynn who understands the intelligence process and the reforms that are needed probably better than anybody else."

Spicer also defended Bannon's qualifications. "Well, he is a former naval officer. He's got a tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape that we have now," Spicer said.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told CBS News, "I am worried about the National Security Council. Who are the members of it and who are the permanent members? The appointment of Mr. Bannon is something which a radical departure from any National Security Council in history."

McCain added that, "One person who is indispensable would be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in my view."

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