WASHINGTON – White House officials defended President Donald Trump’s move to give top political strategist Stephen Bannon a permanent spot on the National Security Council while limiting the role of the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“We are instilling reforms to make sure that we streamline the process for the president to make decisions on key, important intelligence matters,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
In a presidential memorandum issued Saturday, Bannon, 63, a former executive at Breitbart News, was given a permanent spot on the NSC’s principals committee, the senior-level interagency group that considers major national security policy issues. Others with permanent seats on the White House policy council include the secretary of state and secretary of defense.
Under the new policy, however, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff will attend only “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed,” according to the memo. Both were permanent members under President Barack Obama, but had a similar ad hoc status under President George W. Bush.
Republican John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday he was concerned that adding Bannon to the council while leaving out marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was a “radical departure.”
The changes also drew sharp criticism from Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, who said in a Twitter message that the moves were “stone cold crazy.”
“Who needs military advice or (intelligence) to make policy on ISIL, Syria, Afghanistan, DPRK?” she chided.
Rice also criticized aspects of the order that would let Vice President Mike Pence chair meetings of the council in lieu of the president, and reduced the role of the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Spicer called Rice’s criticism “clearly inappropriate” and said “the president gets plenty of information from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
The changes were intended to “modernize the National Security Council so that it is less bureaucratic and more focused on providing the president with the intelligence he needs,” Spicer said.
The White House spokesman also defended Bannon’s inclusion in the group, saying the aide was a “former naval officer” with a “tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape that we have now.”
Bannon has become one of the president’s most trusted, and most contentious, advisers for his ability to channel the populist and nationalist sentiment that helped propel Trump to the Oval Office. In his job at Breitbart, Bannon called the website a platform for the “alt-right,” a brand of conservatism known for frequent inflammatory statements on race and other issues.
Bob Gates, Obama’s defense secretary and a veteran of the NSC and CIA, said in an interview on the same ABC broadcast that while he wasn’t concerned about Bannon’s inclusion, he did believe pushing the DNI and military out of meetings was a “big mistake.”
“They both bring a perspective and judgment and experience to bear that every president, whether they like it or not, finds useful,” Gates said.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus downplayed the move, saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the intelligence director and chairman of the joint chiefs would be “included as attendees anytime they want to be included.”
Still, the moves raise questions about whether the role of the DNI, which was created to better coordinate intelligence agencies after the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks, would diminish under the Trump administration.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, resigned in 2014 from his job as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency amid pressure from James Clapper, who was director of national intelligence under Obama. Flynn also clashed with others in the Obama administration over his management style and priorities.
Spicer said that “you’ve got a leader in Gen. Flynn who understands the intelligence process and the reforms that are needed probably better than anybody else.”
But Flynn’s role as a White House gatekeeper on national security also has been questioned because — unlike Defense Secretary James Mattis and other officials in the new administration — he shares Trump’s optimism about efforts to forge better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.