Even without the Russian intrigues of the nascent Trump administration, now would be a time for Kremlinology. Just as intelligence officers used to scrutinize every possible clue coming out of Moscow for theories about actions taken or considered by the Soviet Politburo, so too do swamp dwellers and observers like me watch every sign coming from the White House for indications of where the Trump administration may go in the months ahead.
The latest signals come in the form of a new structure for the National Security Council, first reported by Bloomberg. Under now-fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, the NSC controversially included White House strategist Steve Bannon in its meetings and distribution roster. The new NSC structure boots Bannon and adds back other important officials like the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—a more conventional structure that mirrors the decades-old statute outlining the NSC’s makeup and function.
We should probably applaud Bannon’s ejection from the NSC. However, the deeper meaning behind the new order remains elusive, as is often the case with all Kremlinology problems (or soothsaying with pigeon entrails—take your pick). This order reflects at least three possible scenarios for what is truly going on behind the walls of the Trump White House.
In a best-case scenario, the new NSC represents the ascendance of Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, a brilliant Army officer who took over as Trump’s national security adviser after Flynn’s indecorous firing. This accords with other moves on the NSC staff in recent weeks, including the elevation of Dina Powell and Nadia Schadlow to important process and strategy jobs, and the reported nudging out of K.T. McFarland, possibly through her “promotion” to U.S. ambassador to Singapore. Other good news in the order includes the blending of the NSC staff to serve both the NSC and the Homeland Security Council, a post-9/11 creation to be primarily staffed by Thomas Bossert.
The Trump White House very much wants us all to believe this is true—that it represents, in Bannon’s words, a move to “de-operationalize” the NSC and return it to “its proper function.” (Bannon himself may also want to focus on domestic priorities, like the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” that are more core to President Trump’s agenda than national security.) Bannon’s explanation refers to a common criticism of the NSC—that it has become bloated since 9/11 and increasingly prone to micromanagement and involvement with operational decisions best left to generals, intelligence officials, and diplomats. He’s not wrong that a more effective NSC would likely be a smaller one that operates on a higher plane.
I want to believe this best-case scenario is true. And yet, there are enough indicators of friction, like the missteps relating to Rep. Devin Nunes’ midnight visit to an NSC staffer to review Russia intelligence, that suggest that explanation is too simplistic. There are also indications, like the president’s personal involvement in national security decisions and dinner diplomacy, that suggest an operational NSC is exactly what this White House craves. So the skeptical Kremlinologist in me thinks something more may be afoot.
A second, more likely scenario is that this memo represents just one in a series of skirmishes between rival individuals and bureaucracies in the Trump White House. One power center appears to revolve around Bannon and the other political operators who immediately orbit the president, including Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner, and Reince Priebus. A second power center is the national security bureaucracy, now led by McMaster and supported by the largest staff in the White House complex, also able to draw on intelligence and analysis generated by massive staffs at the Pentagon, CIA, and other agencies.
Other power centers revolve around the White House Counsel’s Office, the communications and press operation, and the legislative operation, with primacy often depending on the substance of a particular issue. Seen in this context, the memo reflects the outcome of a skirmish over process with the point going to McMaster for this round. But McMaster has lost other skirmishes, such as the fight over the NSC’s senior director for intelligence, as has Defense Secretary James Mattis over national security personnel placements. As a longtime national security professional, McMaster understands better than most the value of winning the skirmish on structure. Deciding who gets to be in the room can, in some cases, decide policy outcomes. However, if Trump’s closest aides get to the boss after the NSC meetings end, then this win may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for McMaster.
Every good Kremlinology exercise must produce at least three scenarios. The third in this case is a worst-case prediction based on the other substantive moves by the White House that have occurred in parallel with this order. In this scenario, the true powers that be within Trump’s White House let McMaster win this round. Structure and process matter little to Trump; the NSC’s organizational chart may matter to a career Army officer like McMaster but not to the boss. So, it’s possible that Bannon and his allies let McMaster spin his wheels on making the NSC great again with the knowledge that it would be irrelevant to national security decision-making, let alone outcomes. The last person in the room reportedly gets the final and most influential say with Trump. For better or worse, in the Trump White House, that person is more likely to be Bannon, Kushner, or Priebus than McMaster.
Unfortunately, the world cannot wait for the Trump team to experiment with its White House organizational chart by trial and error. Every day brings a new crisis, from the killing of Syrian civilians with chemical weapons to terrorist attacks in Russia to America’s continuing competition with China for influence in Asia and the world. The time for tinkering with NSC structure and process was during the transition when the Trump team was instead consumed with palace intrigue and other matters. Whatever structure and process the Trump White House ultimately chooses will be less relevant than the outcomes it produces for the nation and the world.