President Trump raised eyebrows and hackles on Saturday night when he reorganized the National Security Council (NSC), naming chief strategist Stephen Bannon as a member of the top-tier "principals committee" and apparently demoting the director of national intelligence and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the nation's top intelligence and military officials, respectively — to members who "shall attend where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed."
The NSC is "effectively the central nervous system of the U.S. foreign policy and national security apparatus," David Rothkopf, CEO of Foreign Policy's publisher and an expert on the NSC, writes in The Washington Post. The principals committee is the body that presents security options directly to the president and also, according to a 2011 Reuters article, finalizes the kill-or-capture list of militants. Rothkopf calls the elevation of Bannon and effective demotion of Gen. Joseph Dunford and whoever replaces DNI James Clapper "deeply worrisome," especially given Bannon's lack of national security experience and Trump's reputed dislike of taking advice "when it contradicts his own views."
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer pushed back on the criticism on ABC's This Week, arguing that Trump was "streamlining" decision-making, adding that Bannon is "a former Naval officer" with "a tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape that we have now." Bannon served seven years in the Navy in the 1970s and '80s before turning to banking, movie production, and running a far-right website. As for sidelining Dunford, Spicer said, "The president gets plenty of information from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
A senior NSC official told The Washington Post on Sunday that the DNI and Dunford "are invited as attendees to every single NSC meeting," adding, "There's nowhere in that document that says they are excluded." You can watch the White House chief of staff make a similar argument to an incredulous Chuck Todd in the CNN roundup below.
Former President Barack Obama's strategist David Axelrod controversially sat in on some NSC meetings, but there has traditionally been what NPR security editor Philip Ewing calls "a Great Wall of China-separation" between the presidents' political team and nonpartisan specialists. George W. Bush banned his chief strategist, Karl Rove, from NSC meetings because, former Bush chief of staff Josh Bolton explained last fall, he wanted to send a strong signal that the decisions he was "making that involve life and death for the people in uniform will not be tainted by any political decisions."