Over the weekend, thousands have descended on international airports seeking the release of people detained under the executive order signed by President Donald Trump Saturday banning entry from seven Muslim-majority nations.
That executive order was just one of three signed at the same time. One of the others bans White House staff from becoming lobbyists for five years after leaving their government jobs. That one has stirred little controversy.
The third, however, has political insiders and commentators wondering what’s next.
That one restructures the National Security Council, the group of the President’s top advisors on national security issues. By law it consists of the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Energy. Statute also gives roles to several advisers, including the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as military adviser and the Director of National Intelligence as intelligence adviser. The National Security Advisor, White House Chief of Staff, Deputy National Security Advisor and Attorney General also regularly attend meetings.
The last stop for national security decisions is often a subset of the full NSC called the Principals Committee. Trump’s order removed the military and intelligence advisers from the Principals Committee, and installed his chief strategist, White nationalist Steve Bannon.
It’s unusual in the first place to have a political voice at that table, many experts have said. In fact, President George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff Josh Bolten said last year that Bush effectively banned political strategist Karl Rove from NSC meetings, not because he didn’t value Rove’s counsel, but because he wanted to avoid even the appearance of political influence in life-and-death military and national security decisions.
President Trump apparently has no such qualms.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told CBS News, “I am worried about the National Security Council. Who are the members of it and who are the permanent members? The appointment of Mr. Bannon is something which a radical departure from any National Security Council in history.”
Besides the addition of Bannon, many have questioned the wisdom of removing the military and intelligence advisers from the Principals Committee.
“One person who is indispensable would be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in my view,” McCain said.
And former National Security Adviser and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, for example, called the move “stone-cold crazy” in a Tweet.
This is stone cold crazy. After a week of crazy. Who needs military advice or intell to make policy on ISIL, Syria, Afghanistan, DPRK? https://t.co/Mmyc139w3M
— Susan Rice (@AmbassadorRice) January 29, 2017
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Sunday told reporters that Bannon was a Naval officer and has “a tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape that we have now.”
Bannon is also one of the leading voices of the “alt-right,” the wing of the conservative movement most associated with so-called “white pride” and white nationalism.
Attorney John Bellinger, who served on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, told NPR on Sunday that it’s normal for presidents to structure the National Security Council and other advisory groups in the way they see fit.
“There’s no law against the president taking advice from anyone he wants,” Bellinger said.