‘Stone cold crazy’: Bannon seizes role from generals
The whirlwind first week of Donald J. Trump’s presidency had all the bravura hallmarks of a Stephen K. Bannon production.
It started with the doom-hued inauguration homily to “American carnage” in United States cities co-written by Mr. Bannon, followed a few days later by his “shut up” message to the news media. The week culminated with a blizzard of executive orders, mostly hatched by Mr. Bannon’s team and the White House policy adviser, Stephen Miller, aimed at disorienting the “enemy,” fulfilling campaign promises and distracting attention from Mr. Trump’s less than flawless debut.
But the defining moment for Mr. Bannon came Saturday night in the form of an executive order giving the rumpled right-wing agitator a full seat on the “principals committee” of the National Security Council — while downgrading the roles of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence, who will now attend only when the council is considering issues in their direct areas of responsibilities. It is a startling elevation of a political adviser, to a status alongside the secretaries of state and defense, and over the president’s top military and intelligence advisers.
In theory, the move put Mr. Bannon, a former Navy surface warfare officer, admiral’s aide, investment banker, Hollywood producer and Breitbart News firebrand on the same level as his friend, Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, a former Pentagon intelligence chief who was Mr. Trump’s top adviser on national security issues before a series of missteps reduced his influence.
But in terms of real influence, Mr. Bannon looms above almost everyone except the president’s son-in-law, Jared D. Kushner, in the Trumpian pecking order, according to interviews with two dozen Trump insiders and current and former national security officials.
“The last place you want to put somebody who worries about politics is in a room where they’re talking about national security,” said Leon E. Panetta, a former White House chief of staff, defense secretary and C.I.A. director in two Democratic administration.
“I’ve never seen that happen, and it shouldn’t happen. It’s not like he has broad experience in foreign policy and national security issues. He doesn’t. His primary role is to control or guide the president’s conscience based on his campaign promises. That’s not what the national security council is supposed to be about.”
That opinion was shared by President George W. Bush’s last chief of staff, Josh Bolten, who barred Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s political adviser, from N.S.C. meetings. A president’s decisions made with those advisers, he told a conference audience in September, “involve life and death for the people in uniform” and should “not be tainted by any political decisions.”
Susan E. Rice, President Barack Obama’s last national security adviser, called the arrangement “stone cold crazy” in a tweet posted Sunday.
Republicans and democrats are equally agog:
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said he’s concerned about the reorganization.
“I am worried about the National Security Council who are the members of it and who are the permanent members of it,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday. “The appointment of Mr. Bannon is something which is a radical departure from any National Security Council in history.”
Former senior aide to Pres. Barack Obama David Axelrod said, “I never sat on NSC principals comm. I sat on sidelines as observer on some issues 2 gain an understanding of decisions. Bannon’s new ground.”
I never sat on NSC principals comm. I sat on sidelines as observer on some issues 2 gain an understanding of decisions. Bannon's new ground.
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) January 29, 2017
Former vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine said on Sunday that the NSC now “sadly has some really questionable people on it,” including Bannon.
Republican former Defense Sec. Robert Gates said that Trump’s reshuffle of the NSC is a “big mistake,” although he is more concerned, he said, about the removal of the Joint Chiefs chairman and director of intelligence that the addition of Bannon.
“(A)dding people…never really bothers me,” he told ABC’s This Week on Sunday. The removal of key officials, he said, is his “biggest concern.”