White House observers anxiously awaiting a pivot toward tradition from the Trump administration took relief in Wednesday’s sudden announcement that Chief Strategist Steve Bannon had been removed from the National Security Council’s Principals’ Committee.
The decision was met with near-universal approval from D.C.’s foreign policy establishment, who contended since Bannon’s January appointment that a far-right media provocateur-turned-Trump whisperer had no business weighing in on critical national security issues. But several foreign policy experts and former NSC members who spoke with TPM cautioned that it was too early to pop the champagne.
“How many times have we done Lucy with the football with these guys?” asked Derek Chollet, the NSC’s senior director for strategic planning during the Obama administration, in a nod to Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” cartoon. “This is just a bureaucratic version of Trump’s speech before Congress where he stands up and does something semi-normal and everyone heralds it as the return to normalcy. We should wise up by now.”
“If Steve Bannon was being bounced from the government or banished to some windowless office in the bowels of the Old Executive Office Building, that might suggest something different is at play,” Chollet continued. “But the idea that he’s going to formally stop attending meetings that he wasn’t attending in the first place doesn’t seem to be a sea change in the way decisions in this White House are being made.”
Similarly, James Jeffrey, deputy national security adviser to former President George W. Bush, observed to the New York Times that despite this blow, Bannon “seems to be very close to the president and, by most accounts, still wins many of his battles.”
Bannon retains a top-level national security clearance, the ability to sit in on most NSC meetings, and a West Wing office steps away from the Oval Office door. A flurry of reports out Thursday warned that Bannon’s populist, nationalist worldview is clashing spectacularly with the President’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner’s more traditionalist, diplomatic approach, but Bannon remains—at least for now—one of the most influential people in Trump’s small orbit.
The White House worked overtime on Wednesday to downplay Bannon’s role on and removal from the NSC, denying that it was a demotion. Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News that Bannon would “continue to play [an] important policy role,” while Bannon himself framed the move as voluntary, saying he’d successfully managed to “de-operationalize” the NSC as he’d set out to do.
More hopeful reads on the situation suggested that Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who took over as national security adviser following the ouster of the conspiracy-theory-friendly Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, was finally exerting control over the Trump administration’s unstable national security apparatus. This interpretation was bolstered by the addition of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Energy Secretary Rick Perry to the Principals’ Committee (both of those positions had seats on the Principals’ Committee during the Obama administration).
“I think the move to a more traditional membership for the NSC is a step in the right direction and it suggests that the Trump administration may be heading in a more conventional direction when it comes to national security policy,” Charles Kupchan, Senior Director for European Affairs on Obama’s NSC, told TPM.
“I see the Bannon removal as significant, especially if it’s true he threatened to quit over it as has been reported by some news outlets,” Rebecca Friedman Lissner, a nuclear security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, concurred.
But all the national security experts agreed one looming question remained unanswered: Even under McMaster’s consolidated control, does the NSC really hold sway in the Trump administration?
Since its founding in 1947, the NSC was intended as the principal forum in which senior agency heads hashed out diplomatic and military options and presented them to the President. The Trump White House has taken a more scattershot approach, staffing up the NSC while also granting huge responsibility to a small team of close aides outside the NSC apparatus.
Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has an expansive foreign policy portfolio focused on Middle East peace and China, while Trump’s deputy assistant, Sebastian Gorka, says he works on counterterrorism strategy. Bold foreign policy pronouncements are made with seemingly little coordination across the government. For example, White House officials said that the administration did not support forcibly removing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad from power days before Trump signaled that, actually, Assad may need to go.
For Chollet, Obama’s NSC strategic planning director, the fact that Bannon reportedly attended just one or two Principals’ Committee meetings was a sign that it was not the space where such high-level decisions were reached.
“It could be that he’s realized after being there a while that he doesn’t need to sit around and go to PC meetings,” Chollet said. “Everyone tries to figure out what room you want to be in where decisions are being made, and that’s not necessarily uniform from administration to administration.”
Stephen Biddle, a longtime professor at military institutions who has known McMaster for over a decade and praised his record of public service, said he doubts the shakeup at the NSC signaled “an evolution towards an orthodox, professional” national security structure.
Biddle likened the Trump administration to “a medieval palace court where there is a deliberately fluid and deliberately shifting balance of influence among more or less equal power centers.” Viewed this way, “the fact that Bannon just took a hit doesn’t mean he won’t come back,” he said.
“This is an extremely untidy policy development process and one that’s likely to lead to bad to embarrassing results periodically,” Biddle added. “When that happens, whoever has their fingerprints more visibly on the embarrassment of the hour takes a hit, and others advance as he or she retreats. But it keeps happening.”