On January 28, 2017, President Trump signed the Presidential Memorandum on the Organization of the National Security Council (NSPM-2), in which he made the Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist -- Steve Bannon -- a full member of the Principals Committee with an invitation to attend any meeting of the National Security Council. In addition, the Memorandum removed the Secretary of Energy, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Director of National Intelligence as full Principal Committee members. The latter two are invited to meetings “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.”
While every administration tweaks the various roles played by advisors in issues of national security, these changes to the Trump administration’s organization of the Principals Committee have been particularly concerning.
Concerns About Changing Roles
Bannon’s White House role is to provide political advice and a long-term vision for the country’s direction. This kind of strategic thinking differs greatly from the role of strategy and policy-making done by the NSC. The unique executive branch entity is known as deliberative, process-oriented, and thorough in its use of expertise and fact-based data. In light of this, Bannon’s lack of expertise, his necessarily political role, and his well-known desire to fundamentally change America’s position in the world has caused great alarm for many. Bannon’s appointment as a permanent member of the PC is unprecedented.
Bannon’s long-held Islamophobic, misogynistic and anti-semitic views are already coloring and politicizing the NSC. He is considered by many to be the architect of the executive order to ban immigrants and refugees from Muslim majority countries. Rushed out the door with reportedly no input from Cabinet members, the ban has been put on hold by multiple judges, including a unanimous decision from the Ninth Circuit. The ban itself is consistent with Bannon’s long-standing aversion to Islam.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) role is to advise on military operation capability and strategy. Like the DNI, the CJCS remains a statutory advisor to the NSC, but has been removed from the Principals Committee. While the CJCS was a member of the Principals Committee under President Obama, he was not a full member of the Committee under President Bush. But once again, what makes the removal of the CJCS from the Principals Committee alarming is the insertion of Steve Bannon. This changing of advisors has resulted in the Principals Committee appearing to be taking on a more politically strategic role and one less informed by the advice of military and intelligence experts.
Director of National Intelligence
The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) remains a statutory advisor to the NSC, and is a statutory member of several committees on the NSC. However, under President Trump's Presidential Memorandum, the DNI is no longer a full member of the Principals Committee. Taken alone, this is not a huge departure from precedent. Under President George W. Bush, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), and later the DNI, was not a member of the Principals Committee. However, after the events of September 11, 2001, the DCI or DNI was almost always present at Principals Committee meetings. In 2009, President Obama made the DNI a full member of the Principals Committee. What makes this switch concerning is twofold: First, Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community has been fraught and this change in stature on the Principals Committee could prolong the unease. Second, again, is Bannon's addition to the Principals Committee at the same time that the most senior intelligence officer was removed.
Secretary of Energy
In 2007, Congress mandated that the Secretary of Energy be added to the National Security Council. This makes sense as two-thirds of the agency’s annual $30 billion budget is devoted to the maintenance and safety of the nation’s nuclear stockpile, as well as thwarting nuclear proliferation, rebuilding the aging nuclear production facilities, and overseeing prized national laboratories.
Trump’s Presidential memorandum removes the Secretary of Energy from the Principals Committee and, unlike the DNI and CJCS, does not list the Secretary as an “invited member.” Because of the Department of Energy's role in managing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, preventing the spread of nuclear materials around the globe, and providing technical expertise on all nuclear weapons issues, this change could undermine the deliberative and informed decision-making process in setting nuclear weapons policy.