The unprecedented ascension of Steve Bannon to regular attendee on the Principals Committee and invitee to any NSC meeting is one of the most concerning developments of President Trump's National Security Council.
Career Prior to Trump Administration
Steve Bannon's career has spanned multiple fields.
In 1976, after graduating from Virginia Tech, Bannon served in the U.S. Navy for seven years as, among other things, a surface warfare officer on a destroyer and later at a position at the Pentagon. While there, he earned a master's degree at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
In 1983, Bannon left the Navy and attended Harvard Business School, after which he began working as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs.
Bannon worked on a variety of productions. Early in his career, he executive produced several mainstream Hollywood films. After 9/11, he ventured into political film. In 2004, he co-produced a documentary about Ronald Reagan called, “In the Face of Evil: Reagan's War in Word and Deed.” In 2010, he made the Sarah Palin documentary, “The Undefeated.”
In 2012, following the death of its founder Andrew Breitbart, Bannon was named executive chairman of the far-right website Breitbart News. Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart News took on a more nationalistic tone. As Donald Trump became the front-runner in the 2016 Republican Presidential primary race, Breitbart began publishing more stories favorable to Trump. When Donald Trump shook up his campaign in 2016, he hired Bannon as the “chief executive” of his campaign.
In an almost contradictory combination, Bannon injected Trump's campaign simultaneously with discipline and with a populist tone bordering on chaotic. Trump the candidate exercised more control, as he more regularly used teleprompters and adhered to his script or pre-vetted talking points. However, Trump's message became more cohesive only in its appeal to populist themes. To the political establishment, it appeared as though Trump's campaign was unraveling. But the campaign's message was not supposed to resonate with the political establishment; it was supposed to resonate with classes of voters who could deliver the presidency to Trump. And deliver they did.
After winning the election, Donald Trump appointed Steve Bannon to Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist. This announcement was met with praise by many on the far right, including former KKK leader, David Duke.
Concerns About Bannon on the NSC
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--Bannon's position--a full member of the Principals Committee with an invitation to attend any meeting of the National Security Council. The Memorandum removed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence as full Principal Committee members; their positions are invited to meetings “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.”
Steve Bannon’s appointment to the National Security Council needlessly politicizes the national security decision-making process. Previous presidents of both parties have avoided injecting partisan politics into the Council. In 2009, when David Axelrod held a White House position under President Obama equivalent to Bannon's under President Trump, he was invited to some meetings of the National Security Council . However, because of the political nature of Mr. Axelrod's position, he was not permitted to engage in the discussions, and has written publicly that he was invited to attend specifically to observe. Bannon's position on the Council in his capacity as Chief Strategist does away with precedent and largely abandons the goal of keeping the National Security Council free from partisan politics. As GWU associate professor of political science and international affairs, Elizabeth N. Saunders explains, “Many have criticized Bannon for his extreme views, and he has made no secret of his desire to upend the Washington establishment. The appointment of a person with such views is a big departure for an institution like the NSC, whose function is to help coordinate information and policy across the government, especially in times of war or other crisis.”
Bannon's appointment to the NSC is concerning not only because it is an unprecedented injection of politics into the national security decision-making body, but also because of his extreme ideology. The views espoused by Breitbart under his leadership have been racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic in tenor. Furthermore, Bannon has used those views to draw a following, to gain profit, and to mobilize political actors.
Perhaps most worrisome, however, is Bannon's stated belief that the United States is currently undergoing a "Fourth Turning," or a period of change that will lead to a new order. Bannon has said that he believes war with "radical Islam" is a defining feature of this new American era. The fact that Bannon holds these views is enough to make his position in the White House concerning. The fact that he is now a part of the decision-making process in matters of national security is alarming security experts on both sides of the aisle, as well as the general public.