Stephen Bannon’s appointment to the National Security Council (NSC) is stirring alarm among former government officials who fear that crucial White House decisions could be politicized under President Trump.
In an executive memorandum on Saturday, Trump elevated Bannon, his top political adviser, to the so-called Principal’s Committee while de-emphasizing the roles of both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence, who will now only attend meetings when issues pertinent to their responsibilities are discussed.
Shuffling a sheaf of papers that detailed NSC structure under previous administrations, press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday argued that “nothing has changed.”
“This idea that there’s been a downgrade is utter nonsense,” Spicer said. “What we’ve done is make sure that on issues of homeland security and domestic policy, they are always welcome to attend. However, if the issue is pandemic flu or other domestic issues that don’t involve the military, it would be a waste of time to drag the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over. If he wants to attend, he’s welcome.”
National security experts were mostly indifferent to the changes to the role of the Joint Chiefs chairman, currently Gen. Joseph Dunford, and the director of national intelligence, a position currently unfilled, on the NSC and expressed support for Pompeo’s inclusion.
But the decision to elevate Bannon to the NSC shocked former senior officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Bannon, a former Breitbart News executive and investment banker, will have a seat on the security council that is traditionally limited to Cabinet-level officials. The appointment gives his voice the same weight in national security issues as Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
The White House has defended Bannon’s appointment, noting that he was a naval officer for seven years in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“Steve’s not going to be in every meeting; he’ll come in and out when needed,” Spicer said Monday. “But I think we wanted to be upfront about it and make sure that that was stated so it wasn’t a story when he did.”
But it’s Bannon’s role as a political strategist to Trump that troubles former officials.
“I think it’s very dangerous to put someone who is a political adviser and make that person a permanent member of the NSC,” Obama’s former Defense secretary and CIA director, Leon Panetta, told The Hill.
“I would object to political advisers no matter who they are being made a permanent member of the NSC. I think that goes against everything the NSC was established to provide.”
Susan Rice, a former national security adviser under Obama, called the move “stone-cold crazy.”
The danger, NSC experts say, is structural. If you give a political officeholder a permanent role on the council, whose primary responsibility is the long-term security of the country, it opens the door for decisions to be made with short-term political aims in mind.
“The president is already a candidate for 2020,” said Mieke Eoyang, a former House Intelligence Committee staffer and national security expert at Third Way. “That’s the campaign team sitting in and making decisions and steering the conversation.”
Under some previous administrations, Bannon’s counterpart was allowed sporadic access but never given a permanent seat. The appointment is a “radical departure” from any other NSC in history, according to Sen. John McCainJohn McCainMcCain: China has done ‘nothing’ on North Korea Graham: There are 'no good choices left' with North Korea Graham: North Korea shouldn't underestimate Trump MORE (R-Ariz.).
Obama’s top political adviser, David Axelrod, sat in on some meetings “as a silent observer,” McCain said, but did not “speak or participate.”
Axelrod’s presence raised some eyebrows within the Obama administration, but he argued in a Monday op-ed that he was there to gain a thorough understanding of policies that he would then have to publicly articulate — not to contribute or influence policy.
“Our access also came with limits,” Axelrod wrote. “I did not attend regular meetings of the NSC Principals Committee or their deputies.”
George W. Bush’s close adviser, Karl Rove, was never admitted to NSC meetings, according to his former chief of staff, Josh Bolten.
“The president made that clear right at the beginning: If it’s an NSC meeting, you may not appear,” Bolten told conference attendees in September.
“The president 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.”
Observers see the promotion of Bannon as evidence of his outsize influence in Trump’s White House — influence that could overshadow even Flynn.
Reports over the weekend also indicate that Bannon was the chief architect behind Trump’s controversial executive order suspending immigration and refugee resettlement from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Bannon’s appointment to the NSC, some say, is more evidence that a handful of individuals are broadly shaping the new administration’s policies.
“It’s giving more and more power to an informal coterie of people in the White House to play leading roles on national security — whether it’s Bannon in the NSC role or Jared Kushner, who has been given portfolios in China, Mexico and Israel,” said David Rothkopf, a former Bill ClintonBill ClintonRobert Siegel leaving NPR's 'All Things Considered' Press: Hillary's doomed bid Beyond Manafort: Both parties deal with pro-Russian Ukrainians MORE administration official who has written a book on the NSC.