One of the initial foot-shots of the Trump administration, and for a short while I thought they had a runaway gun with a perpetual ammo supply, was the reordering to the National Security Council. There were two key components to the change from the way the Obama NSC was structured. Trump returned to the Bush-era rule of relegating the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence to an “as needed” role rather than them having a perpetual seat at the table by being members of the “principals committee.” This would probably have caused some excitement by itself but it was another feature of the reorganization that got everyone exercised. Steve Bannon was made a part of the principals committee. The atmospherics of tossing the JCS chairman and DNI off the prinicipals committee and elevating his “political strategist” to their position, especially in the context of everything else going on, was horrible.
With the departure of Mike Flynn as National Security Advisor, there was a brief struggle to find someone who would accept the position without being allowed to structure and staff the NSC their own way. H. R. McMaster took the job and many were doubtful that he’d have much success in shaping his own organization. However, it now looks like he has won total control of NSC policy and personnel.
The first hint that H. R. McMaster was slowly but inexorably winning the battle for total control of NSC operations and personnel came in mid-March when McMaster hired Dina Powell to be Deputy National Security Advisor for strategy. This was significant because he already had a deputy, K. T. MacFarland. (Full disclosure, I’m agnostic on MacFarland. She would not have been my choice for a Deputy National Security Advisor but her predecessor was a failed novelist with close ties to the Iranian regime, so what do I know?) Then on Saturday, it was announced that MacFarland was offered the job of Ambassador to Singapore.
Today, however, shows a clear and absolute victor in the battle for who owns the NSC. It is H. R. McMaster.
President Donald Trump reorganized his National Security Council on Wednesday, removing his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, and downgrading the role of his Homeland Security Adviser, Tom Bossert, according to a person familiar with the decision and a regulatory filing.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was given responsibility for setting the agenda for meetings of the NSC or the Homeland Security Council, and was authorized to delegate that authority to Bossert, at his discretion, according to the filing.
Under the move, the national intelligence director, Dan Coats, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, are again “regular attendees” of the NSC’s principals committee.
As we’ve noted many times, everything about Trump is transactional. If your presence in his circle enhances his prestige, he’s your patron. If your star wanes, he’ll kick you to the curb without hesitation. If one looks at the palace politics, it is clear that there is a battle being waged between Jared and Ivanka Kushner on the one hand, and Bannon and his people on the other, for influence. One thing you learn if you’ve ever worked in a family owned business is that you can’t win those fights. The trip Jared Kushner made to Iraq with the JCS Chairman needs to be viewed as more of an exercise in wooing White House influencers than in elevating Kushner. I think one should also start viewing Mattis, McMaster, Kelly, and Tillerson as working with a rather singular purpose and they could very well end up being the most cohesive national security team we’ve seen in a while.