WASHINGTON — The White House shifted course on the National Security Council today by taking President Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon off the council.
In a January executive memo, Trump stated that the council’s Principals Committee “shall have as its regular attendees the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff, the Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist, the National Security Advisor, and the Homeland Security Advisor.”
It marked the first time the president’s chief strategist had a seat on the council. President George W. Bush excluded Karl Rove from the meetings, with transition documents indicating Bush wanted a distinct separation between security policy and domestic politics. President Obama’s strategist David Axelrod occasionally attended National Security Council meetings but did not have a seat on the council.
Trump’s memo further stated, “The Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff shall attend where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed. The Counsel to the President, the Deputy Counsel to the President for National Security Affairs, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget may attend all PC meetings.”
Today, with then-National Security Advisor Mike Flynn gone and new National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster in charge, the National Security Council shifted back: Bannon is off, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats are back on as regular members.
Politco reported that McMaster quietly met last week with one of his predecessors, 92-year-old Brent Scowcroft, who served under presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush.
McMaster has also sought the reassignment of NSC intelligence director Ezra Cohen-Watnick — a 30-year-old aide brought to the White House by Flynn who was named as one of two administration officials who helped House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) view documents reportedly showing incidental collection of Trump campaign officials in FISA monitoring of foreign subjects — but was blocked by Bannon and senior advisor Jared Kushner, and the national security advisor appears to still have not won that battle.
“Susan Rice operationalized the NSC during the last administration. I was put on to ensure that it was de-operationalized,'” Bannon said in a statement. “General McMaster has returned the NSC to its proper function.”
Vice President Pence told Fox that it wasn’t a demotion for Bannon and that the former Breitbart chairman will “continue to play important policy roles.”
“This is just a natural evolution to ensure the National Security Council is organized in a way that best serves the president in resolving and making those difficult decisions,” Pence said.
The New York Times, citing unnamed White House sources, reported the shift was less amicable, with Bannon threatening to quit at one point.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) welcomed the news. “As the new administration navigates a complex array of challenges around the world, it is critical that the president hears from these experienced and talented leaders on his national security team,” he said.
“I have said before that I could not imagine a more capable national security team than the one we have right now,” McCain added. “And I have great confidence that if empowered, these outstanding individuals will provide the president with the sound advice and counsel he needs to restore American leadership and confront the many threats facing our nation.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told MSNBC he thought the Bannon news was “good,” but “something tells me he is still going to have a very central role, much to the chagrin of Republicans and Democrats and a lot of big national security decisions that get made in the White House.”