Who determines who is on the National Security Council?

Members of the National Security Council (NSC) are either mandated by law or appointed by the President. Current statutory members (mandated by law) of the NSC include the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and, since 2007, the Secretary of Energy. Current non-statutory members (appointed at the president’s discretion) include the White House Chief Strategist, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the National Security Advisor, the Homeland Security Advisor, the Representative of the United States to the United Nations, and other senior and cabinet-level officials. Although the NSC is a creation of Congress, the president has broad discretion to determine who performs national security functions on the Council's various committees.

Are the members of the NSC confirmed by the Senate?

This seems like a simple question, but the answer is actually quite complicated. Members of the NSC who are part of the President’s cabinet are confirmed by the Senate as part of the process of becoming a cabinet member. For example, the Secretary of State must be confirmed by the Senate before assuming office. The Senate knows that part of the Secretary of State's job will be to serve on the National Security Council, and that consideration is weighed with others in determining whether the nominee is qualified.

Some members do not require Senate confirmation, such as the Vice President. The Vice President is a statutory member of the NSC but is generally chosen during an election by the presidential candidate and elected as part of the ticket.

The President does not need the approval of the Senate if he is merely inviting someone to NSC meetings, or appointing someone to be a member of one of the NSC committees.

What's the difference between the NSC and the Principals Committee?

The term “National Security Council” has a dual meaning. In one sense, it is used to describe the core statutory members who are in the room with the President when he is making decisions. However, the term is also used to refer to the broader national security apparatus, including staff, who make up and support the various members and committees of the NSC.

In that sense, the Principals Committee is one of the committees that makes up the NSC. It is the senior inter-agency body that discusses and deliberates national security policy options to present to the President.

Currently, the members of the Principals Committee are the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Attorney General, Secretary of Homeland Security, White House Chief of Staff, Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist, the President's National Security Advisor, and the President's Homeland Security Advisor.

I heard that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Director of National Intelligence were removed from the Principals Committee. Why is that important?

Under President Trump, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) were removed as full members of the Principals Committee. The DNI and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs had been full members of the Principals Committee under President Obama. Trump’s removal of the two positions from the Principals Committee on its own is not unprecedented. Under President George W. Bush, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Director of Central Intelligence (after the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission were implemented, the DNI took over this role) were not members of the Principals Committee. Both positions, however, remain statutory advisers to the National Security Council, meaning that the President and other members of the Council shall consult with them when their expertise in needed. In practice, this has historically meant that the DNI and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is present at almost every meeting of the National Security Council and an overwhelming majority of Principals Committee meetings.

The primary reason that this removal is concerning is that the appointment of Steve Bannon to the Principals Committee has changed the tenor of the Committee and injected a more political tone.

I heard the Secretary of Energy was removed from the NSC. Is that correct?

The Secretary of Energy is still a member of the NSC and is currently a statutory member. However, President Trump has removed the Secretary of Energy from the Principals Committee. This is a change from President Obama’s Principals Committee structure.