Reading the Tea Leaves of Trump’s NSC Shakeup

The announcement on Wednesday that President Donald Trump had removed political advisor Stephen Bannon from his guaranteed seat on the National Security Council’s (NSC) Principals Committee was largely greeted as a step toward restoring the normal order of things in national security decision-making.  As rival power circles jockey for influence in the White House, Trump’s new national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster also scored a big win. But if you look closely, it’s clear that McMaster’s victory was preceded by extensive “preparation of the battlefield” and it could be just the first public win in a longer struggle to save the Trump national security team.  Whether McMaster succeeds will depend on his ability to ally with centrists close to Trump — top economic advisor Gary Cohn, Jared Kushner and others — in pushing back against Bannon and his loyalists.

As the week closes, Bannon’s tenure in the White House is increasingly up in the air. But it’s important to note that he has a substantial network of populist conservatives who support his “America first” and anti-elitist ideology on immigration, trade, and the role of government.  As Jonathan Swan writes for Axios, “His staunchest ally is one of Trump’s closest confidants — Attorney General Jeff Sessions.” Another close ally and campaign veteran, Stephen Miller, oversees all domestic policy and led the drafting of the controversial immigration orders.  Peter Navarro is an economic nationalist who sees trade as a zero sum game and is currently establishing a new National Trade Council.  Bannon’s newest lieutenant, Julia Hahn, is a fellow Breitbart veteran who brings an anti-immigration firebrand approach to policy.  And Bannon’s biggest political benefactors are Trump’s mega donors: billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who activate a network of populist thinkers, political activists, and media that largely reinforce the Bannon view of the world.  Press reports suggest that Rebekah Mercer may have convinced Bannon to remain in his position despite his displeasure over the demotion from NSC’s Principals Committee.

As for McMaster, his appointment as national  security advisor was met with near universal excitement, or at least, there was relief in comparison to feelings about his successor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, or the potential alternatives.  Voices on the left and right praised the decorated warrior, academic, and expert in civil-military relations as perhaps the best candidate who would actually take the job.  While early reports from within suggest McMaster has made real progress healing Flynn-inflicted wounds with the NSC staff, McMaster himself has been notably quiet since taking the job.  Before the strikes against Syria Thursday night,   he hadn’t made any significant public remarks, nor did he immediately install his own team.  He did try to remove the NSC’s top intelligence official, and one of Flynn’s remaining loyalists (reportedly nicknamed “Flynnstones” by some in the intelligence community), Ezra Cohen-Watnick.  The 30-year old former Defense Intelligence Agency operative reportedly had a toxic relationship with the CIA, and his inexperience going into such a senior job had raised red flags for many inside the intelligence community. McMaster’s effort to move him to another job was thwarted though when Cohen-Watnick  appealed to both Bannon and Kushner, who spoke with the president on his behalf.  

Cohen-Watnick aside, McMaster appears to have made other subtle but important steps toward building his own NSC staff.  The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported this week that McMaster quietly brought in respected GOP foreign policy experts to run the strategy and South and Central Asia shops and a noted Russia hawk to lead policy efforts toward the Kremlin.  Meanwhile, Deputy National Security Advisor KT McFarland, tapped originally by Flynn for her job, is reported to have been offered a new opportunity to serve, as ambassador to Singapore.  

And although it is unclear whether McMaster had any role in it, the White House seemed to muzzle, at least temporarily, Sebastian Gorka, the former national security editor at Breitbart and fringe academic, who, during the early weeks of the Trump administration, served as the White House’s primary foreign policy voice.  Gorka, who vaguely describes himself as a deputy assistant to the president (which is a rank within the White House, not an actual position), was ruthless in blasting the president’s critics, arguing for a hardline view on Islam and terrorism, and bashing the Obama administration’s foreign policy team. He took on an outsized public role, despite the fact that he didn’t actually work at the NSC, but instead was a member of a Bannon-led White House team called the Strategic Initiatives Group, which the White House now claims never existed. Gorka also took to the airwaves, making some of his boldest claims on national security and denouncing the previous administration’s counterterrorism policies, before he even held a security clearance. While Gorka has taken a lower profile recently, he is still very much a part of Trump’s team, and on Wednesday night was back on Fox News, slamming Obama administration officials.

As Rogin rightly notes, there is still a long way to go to restore normalcy in Trump’s foreign policy.  Rex Tillerson’s reclusive leadership style is alienating the State Department.  And large swaths of vacancies in senior Defense, State, and Homeland Security positions are hindering the development of a coherent, deliberate U.S. foreign policy.  And with a large contingent of GOP foreign policy experts having essentially disqualified themselves by signing #NeverTrump letters, McMaster and his colleagues will be drawing from a shallow pool.

But McMaster appears to have two big things going for him and their names are Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn.  The New York Times reported Wednesday on a split between Kushner and Bannon that ultimately helped pave the way for Bannon’s removal from the NSC. This parting of ways is perhaps not surprising for the former head of Breitbart and a guy who hosted a major fundraiser for New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker just a couple years ago. The behind-the-scenes catfight between the two men burst into the open this week with stories about weeks of seething resentment and behind-the-back name-calling.

With Bannon’s influence waning, at least at the NSC, there are signs that Kushner is seizing the opportunity to make the NSC  an alternative White House power center for himself.  It makes sense given Kushner’s desire to establish himself as a dealmaker on Middle East peace, US-Mexico relations, and other major global issues.  Indeed, much was made of Kushner’s trip to Iraq with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen.Joe Dunford, but largely overlooked in that coverage was that NSC homeland security and counterterrorism advisor Tom Bossert accompanied Kushner and Dunford.  Bossert is an alum of the Bush White House who did not have pre-existing ties to Flynn, and by early accounts, he seems to be a respected professional with minimal overtly partisan tendencies.  Some commentary this week focused on McMaster’s assertion of authority over the homeland security advisor in the president’s new policy directive, but Bossert could be a useful bridge to Kushner.

Nearly as formidable as Kushner is Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive who has quietly assembled an impressive National Economic Council team (reportedly dismissed by Bannon’s team as “the Democrats” or the “New Yorkers”). It’s comprised of former Wall Street executives, mainstream economists, a former climate change advocate, and one of President Barack Obama’s negotiators on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  The Cohn team is reportedly crafting President Trump’s tax reform proposal and Cohn has been floated as a contender to replace Reince Priebus if he leaves the chief of staff job early, which is looking more and more likely.  Cohn’s deputy for international economics, Ken Juster, also reports to McMaster.  Within Cohn’s orbit is Dina Powell, also a former Goldman executive who led the political appointments apparatus during George W. Bush’s second term.  Ivanka Trump brought Powell into the White House, and she was recently named as deputy national security advisor for strategy issues, under McMaster.  Powell is personally close with Ivanka Trump and her partner, hedge fund manager David McCormick, declined an offer to be appointed Deputy Secretary of Defense.  Kushner and Ivanka have multiple ties to other Goldman executives and New York real estate titans in Cohn’s sphere.  

But what does all of this mean for national security policy?   Kushner and Cohn have minimal experience in the range of national security issues that any White House faces.  And neither of them have strong ties to major foreign policy talent hubs.  If this results in a greater reliance on McMaster’s team, what the Trump foreign policy looks like could hinge on a handful of key personnel decisions.

First, what will become of Cohen-Watnick, who is by press accounts distrusted  by both the intelligence community and many of his NSC colleagues?  McMaster was unable to move him, and his fierce loyalty may only reinforce his stature with the president.  But given Cohen-Watnick’s involvement in the recent controversial sharing of intelligence with Congressman Devin Nunes, he may end up departing on different terms.  If he leaves, McMaster will need to move quickly to replace him with an intelligence officer who could regain the trust of the intelligence community.  He reportedly has a preferred candidate – a senior CIA officer with extensive experience in counterterrorism, but her ability to get through will say volumes about the White House’s ability to reconcile with the career national security experts that Bannon and his ilk have derided as the “deep state.”

Next is whether Flynn’s chiefs for Asia, Matt Pottinger, and the Middle East, Derek Harvey, remain in place.  Both men came to their roles with significantly better reputations than some of their peers, and like McMaster, they have shared ties to the network of counterinsurgency experts centered around retired Gen. David Petraeus.  Pottinger has reportedly enlisted Gary Cohn in addressing policy differences with Bannon and Kushner, both of whom have preferred harder line approaches to China.  As for Harvey, his future influence could hinge on the current Syria situation and whether the aftermath of U.S. cruise missile strikes is a chastened Assad or heightened tensions with Russia, Iran, and Syria that undermine broader U.S. goals in the region.  Critical to Harvey and Pottinger’s success — particularly while key positions at State and DOD remain unfilled — will be their ability to leverage the expertise of career staff who have struggled with the complex policy issues in both regions for the past decade.

Similarly, whether McMaster retains Kevin Harrington as a senior official for strategic planning will say a lot about how much he is willing to disrupt core tenets of U.S. foreign policy.  Kate Brannen and I wrote in February about how Harrington, an acolyte of billionaire Peter Thiel with no experience in foreign policy, could bring Thiel’s “disruptor” mindset to foreign policy.  It’s possible that Harrington continues to advocate for such ideas, but he may be elbowed out by Powell, who is now the senior most official for strategy, and Nadia Schadlow, the experienced foreign policy hand who McMaster recently brought on to write Trump’s  National Security Strategy.

Thiel also reportedly recommended to Bannon Michael Anton, a former speechwriter in the Bush White House who lit up conservative media last year with his now infamous piece contending that the United States is like the passengers on United flight 93, doomed to destroy themselves and others if the passengers don’t take dramatic action.  Although Anton leads strategic communications for the NSC, he has been notably quiet since taking the job.  Whether the NSC takes on a more public profile, it will be important to see who is put forward to speak about Trump’s policies. Will it be Anton, Gorka, or McMaster himself? These choices will say a lot about how much influence McMaster has and how he thinks about conversing with the American public, reassuring allies, and warning adversaries. On Thursday night, McMaster had a debut of sorts, explaining the strikes against Syria to journalists at Mar-a-Lago with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The linchpin in all of this may end up being Powell.  Her strong ties to Cohn and Ivanka position her boss well in the struggle against the Bannon crowd.  And the extensive rolodex she developed in overseeing political appointments for President Bush will be helpful in filling out the scores of foreign policy positions that President Trump has yet to fill – if she can get them past Bannon.

It’s a scary time in foreign policy when our best bet for sanity is an alliance between an active-duty general, a retired banker, and the president’s children.  But given the alternative, this is a hope to which we should all cling.

Image: Getty

 

About the Author(s)

Luke Hartig

Executive Director of National Journal's Network Science Initiative and Fellow, International Security Program at New America. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow him on Twitter (@LukeHartig).