WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s White House on Monday defended its placement of a political adviser on the National Security Council ― and in the process falsely described the extent of the change.
Trump signed a directive on Saturday outlining the structure of the NSC and a key “Principals Committee,” a standard housekeeping step done at the start of a new administration. What made Trump’s document unprecedented, though, was the elevation of White House “chief strategist” Stephen Bannon to both groups, technically giving him more clout on national security matters than either the director of national intelligence or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Bannon until recently was the head of Breitbart News, a web site that traffics in white nationalism. Both the nation’s top intelligence officer and military officer are no longer permanent members of the Principals Committee, as they were under President Barack Obama.
Neither Obama nor the previous Republican president, George W. Bush, had put a White House political aide on the NSC, to avoid the appearance of mixing politics and national security.
“Putting Bannon there? That’s different,” said Eliot Cohen, a State Department official under Bush and a member of his NSC’s Deputies Committee. “That’s the part people should be alarmed by.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, though, said that Obama political adviser David Axelrod did occasionally attend NSC meetings, so Trump is merely being “transparent” by formally appointing Bannon.
He argued the NSC structure under Trump was essentially identical to what it was under Bush, after accounting for positions like DNI that did not yet exist in early 2001.
Further, Spicer claimed that neither the DNI nor the Joint Chiefs chairman’s roles had diminished. “They are at every NSC meeting and are welcome to attend the principals’ meetings as well,” Spicer said.
An examination of those documents, though, shows that Spicer’s assertions are not true.
For one, Bush had no “chief strategist” position in his White House, and his top political aide, Karl Rove, was never on the NSC. Second, Trump’s directive states that the DNI and the Joint Chiefs chair “shall attend where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” It does not, however, grant permission to either of them to attend other meetings.
Spicer did not respond to a Huffington Post query on the topic.
Axelrod, in response to Spicer’s statements, tweeted that he also was never a member of the NSC, and sat “on sidelines as observer on some issues” to understand the decisions better. “Bannon’s new ground,” he wrote.
Trump’s NSC directive came a day after his ban on entry to the United States from a handful of majority-Muslim nations. It nevertheless drew substantial news coverage featuring harsh criticism of the changes that elevated Bannon and diminished the standing of the other two.
Spicer ― possibly at the urging of Trump, who previously has sent his press secretary out to criticize media coverage of the light attendance at his inauguration ― seemed visibly upset discussing the matter Monday.
“There’s been a lot of misreporting this week about what this memo does and does not do,” he said, before launching into a nearly five-minute rebuttal of the coverage on the issue.