White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday tried to tamp down the furor over President Donald Trump’s reorganization of the National Security Council, saying “nothing has changed.” A comparison of Trump’s order with documents from the Bush and Obama administrations, however, shows that is not entirely accurate. Unlike President Barack Obama, but like President George W. Bush, Trump did not make the US Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff regular members of the cabinet-level Principals Committee.
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But Trump’s directive gives an unprecedented NSC role to a political advisor, Steve Bannon, who headed Breitbart News, a website and voice for the alt-right movement, a loose confederation that includes hardcore nationalists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and anti-Semites. Critics of the move say it could allow domestic politics to influence national security and puts a political adviser on par with other Cabinet level officials.
In his briefing on Monday, Spicer argued that identifying Bannon by his title was a move to show that the administration was transparent about who is attending top-level meetings. He said that David Axelrod, a top political adviser to Obama, attended national security meetings “quite frequently.”
Axelrod disputed that, saying he attended early meetings under Obama only on Afghanistan-Pakistan policy. “I was not a member of the committee. I did not speak or participate. I sat on the sidelines as a silent observer,” he wrote on CNN’s website on Monday. A former top Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, called the addition of Bannon “an unprecedented politicization of foreign policy that exceeds even what hubris is the new normal.”
“In many ways that is unprecedented, often time these discussions are analytical, very technical, and it is not a lot of politics in the room,” said Shannon Green, who served on the National Security Council staff and is now a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Green said that there are few areas where the U.S. military and intelligence agencies do not have expertise and relationships with foreign governments that could be beneficial for non-military issues.
The Pentagon said it did not see Trump’s reorganization as downgrading the role of the Joint Chiefs chairman, who is the top U.S. military officer. The chairman and the U.S. intelligence czar are advisers to the National Security Council by law. Trump’s directive says they will attend meetings of the Principals Committee “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” That is the same language used by Bush in a February 2001 order.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, “when he engages with the National Security Council, whether it is with the full NSC or at a PC (Principals Committee), he intends to always have the chairman at his side when he is discussing anything that has anything to do with national security and our military,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said. In a statement the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said he would continue to provide his best military advice to the President and members of National Security Council.