White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon has been removed from his role on the National Security Council, in a shakeup that restores the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff (JCS) as regular attendees to the NSC’s Principals Committee.
The changes were revealed in a national security presidential memorandum published Wednesday in the Federal Register, the daily journal of the U.S. government.
The New York Times late Wednesday reported that Bannon resisted the move, even threatening at one point to quit if it went forward, according to a White House official who insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Bannon on Thursday told NBC News that reports he threatened to quit are "total nonsense."
“It’s hard to evaluate exactly what they’re doing here,” according to Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “The Trump team clearly made some rookie mistakes in its first few weeks in office,” Katulis, a junior NSC staffer during the Bill Clinton presidency, tells VOA.
President Donald Trump, in January, issued an executive order giving Bannon, a former executive of a right-wing online opinion and news site, the authority to participate in the NSC’s Principals Committee.
There were concerns that Bannon, who led Trump’s election campaign in its final months, would inject domestic policy considerations into national security discussions. He has been a polarizing figure in and out of the West Wing of the White House, calling for the “deconstruction of the administrative state” and advocating “economic nationalism.”
But many supporters of the president have cheered Trump’s embrace of non-traditional figures in his inner circle as part of his campaign pledge to “drain the swamp” and structure a radically different administration in the White House.
Reports of internal clashes
Media reports previously portrayed Bannon as clashing with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who is a former head of the Republican Party’s national committee. News stories on Wednesday attributed Bannon getting his wings clipped due to increased scrutiny of White House senior staff by the president’s son-in-law and former Democrat, Jared Kushner, who has been given a large portfolio ranging from the Middle East peace process to reorganizing the federal government.
The Republican chairman of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, John McCain, characterizes Bannon’s ouster as “a good move.” The senator also is welcoming the president’s decision to restore the director of national intelligence and the JCS chairman to the NSC Principal’s Committee.
Daniel Coats, a former Republican senator, is the director of national intelligence and Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford chairs the JCS, making him the country’s highest ranking military officer.
“As the new administration navigates a complex array of challenges around the world, it is critical that the president hears from these experienced and talented leaders on his national security team,” says McCain.
A Republican congresswoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, calls Bannon’s removal “welcome news,” saying “I called for him to write himself out in January.”
It is unclear whether Bannon actually has attended any of the NSC Principals meetings.
President Barack Obama’s national security adviser “Susan Rice operationalized the NSC during the last administration. I was put on to ensure that it was de-operationalized,” Bannon said in a statement sent to the Wall Street Journal. “General McMaster (the current national security adviser) has returned the NSC to its proper function.”
Asked for comment, the White House referred VOA to the NSC, which did not immediately respond.
President Trump, at the end of his joint news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah, did not reply to questions shouted about Bannon.
Also added to the NSC Principals Committee on Wednesday are the Central Intelligence Agency director, the ambassador to the United Nations and the secretary of the Energy Department (which has responsibility for the design, testing and production of all U.S. nuclear weapons).
The presidential memo on the NSC also downgrades the role of Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, who had been given authority to convene or chair the Principals Committee.
Bossert is now subordinate to the president’s new national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who replaced Michael Flynn, a retired three-star general.
Flynn lasted less than one month in the job, pushed out amid questions about his ties to Russia.
The NSC, created in 1947 as a coordinating body to present strategic options to the president, has become increasingly large in recent administrations. It approximately doubled in size between the Clinton era (1993-2001) and Obama’s two terms (2009-2017).
Trump administration officials have spoken of shrinking its size and limiting the role of the NSC.