Historically, the National Security Council has served as the President’s primary resource for determining issues of national security and foreign policy. In a volatile global climate, it is an especially critical forum for strategy and advising. So, it’s all the more disconcerting that ever since Trump’s inauguration, the council’s organizational structure has crumpled.
According to the New York Times, a number of conditions have coalesced to engender uncertainty and dishevelment. Donald Trump’s daily cascade of tempestuous tweets requires damage control — that is to say, staff members must seek to make them coherent with extant policy. But this task is difficult, to say the least, when most of the council is not privy to what Trump tells foreign leaders during official calls.
Wobbly leadership may also become an increasingly difficult issue: right now, after all, national security adviser Michael T. Flynn is precariously perched. Investigators are seeking to learn what he told the Russia ambassador about the possible lifting of sanctions, and whether he concealed some of that information from Vice President Mike Pence. Trump has indicated that he knew nothing of the suspicions regarding Flynn’s activities, but of course his aides have insisted that he is paying careful attention to the proceedings. In any case, depending on the gravity of offense, Flynn could be removed from his position.
Says California representative Adam B. Schiff to the Times, “It’s so far a very dysfunctional N.S.C.” Schiff is the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Granted, any new administration brings with it some degree of topsy-turviness. After determining that he did not mesh with the administration, Barack Obama replaced his first national security adviser, General James Jones. George W. Bush’s council was initially plagued by infighting. And this time, circumstances are especially unique.
“I think it would be a mistake if we didn’t have consternation about the changes — most of the cabinet haven’t even been in government before,” remarks K.T. McFarland, deputy national security adviser, Reagan administration veteran, and former Fox News employee.
But consternation and fear differ vastly in their intensity. Those who could not tolerate working for Trump have left the council. Those who have stayed adhere to the philosophy that partisan politics have no place in matters of national security. And yet, McFarland has told her staff to “Make America great again,” during an all-hands meeting. Trump appointees brandish coffee mugs with their president’s campaign logo. And as employees have become increasingly nervous about the atmospheric shift, they’ve resorted to encrypted communication. Word is that some of Trump’s closest advisers are contemplating an “insider threat” program where emails and mobile phones would be monitored.
Nervous staff members believe it might be safest for them to delete any social media communicating anti-Trump messages, however implicit.
Meanwhile, securing Trump’s focused attention has proven an additional challenge. President Obama preferred memos three to six pages in length, single-spaced. Trump does not care to read more than a single page, and he wants that page to be littered with images and maps.
One anonymous official tells the Times, “The president likes maps.”
Internally, exchanging information has also become haphazard, without clearcut channels of communication — an organizational issue for which Flynn is responsible. The jams in paper flow prevented both Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and C.I.A. director Mike Pompeo from reviewing multiple executive orders before they were implemented.
Steve Bannon’s lurking presence in the National Security Council has also generated concern. Flynn’s aides confide to the Times that, due to Bannon’s influence, he is unsure he will maintain his unobstructed access to the president. He is moreover concerned about Bannon’s creation of a “shadow council.” Bannon, whose ideologies are regarded by many as deeply disturbing, is chomping at the bit to indulge his militarist instincts. As far as he’s concerned, the United States is hurtling towards a collision with both China and Iran — and he doesn’t seem especially bothered by that.
There are so many knotted threads to be untangled, and—tragically—it’s unclear as to whether that will improve matters. Trump’s administration has engendered brutal chaos, to say nothing of the widespread suffering — but then, this is what America chose, right?