WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump reshuffled his national security organization on Wednesday, removing his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, from a top policymaking committee and restoring senior military and intelligence officials who had been downgraded when he first came into office.
The shift was orchestrated by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who was tapped as Trump’s national security adviser after the resignation of Michael Flynn, who stepped down in February after being caught misleading Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador.
McMaster inherited an organizational scheme for the National Security Council that stirred protests because of Bannon’s role. The original setup made Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News, a member of the principals committee that typically includes Cabinet-level officials like the vice president, secretary of state and defense secretary. The original order also made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence only occasional participants as issues demanded.
Critics said Bannon’s presence in a national security policymaking structure risked politicizing foreign policy.
A new order issued by Trump, dated Tuesday and made public Wednesday, removes Bannon from the principals committee, restores the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and intelligence director and also adds the energy secretary, CIA director and United Nations ambassador.
A senior White House official presented the move as a logical evolution, not a setback for Bannon. He had originally been put on the principals committee to keep an eye on Flynn and to “de-operationalize” the NSC after the Obama administration, this official said on condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics. This official said that process had been completed.
Another official close to Bannon insisted the move was not in any way a sign that the president had lost confidence in him or wanted to reduce his portfolio. And as evidence he will still play a role in national security decisions, the aide said that Bannon still maintains the highest level of security clearance in the West Wing.
But the reorganization seemed a clear victory for McMaster as he struggles to assert control over national security. In addition to the changing membership of the principals committee, the new order also puts the Homeland Security Council under McMaster rather than making it a separate entity, as Trump’s original order had done.
McMaster had envisioned making these changes shortly after taking the job in February, but proceeded slowly to avoid inflaming an already volatile situation. Bannon and his allies initially insisted his position would not change under any reorganization by McMaster, but eventually the president was convinced that it was wiser to take him off the principals committee.
The principals committee, led by the national security adviser, is the primary policymaking body for national security, and decides questions that do not rise to the level of the president himself. The committee also debates issues that will get sent to the president, and frames the choices for him.
Political advisers traditionally have not served on the committee. President George W. Bush kept his senior adviser, Karl Rove, out of sensitive national security meetings. President Barack Obama permitted his senior adviser, David Axelrod, to sit in on some, but he was not given formal status and he has said he merely observed and did not participate.
In addition to giving Bannon formal membership, the original national security organization reduced the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and national intelligence director, stipulating that they would attend only “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities are to be discussed.”
Members of Trump’s team said they did not mean to downgrade them; it simply took Bush’s original order and cut and pasted language into theirs, not realizing that the two officials had been upgraded under Obama.
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