Former Joint Chiefs chairman: Trump needs to kick Steve Bannon out of the National Security Council

Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Reuters/Jason Reed

A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has condemned the president’s inclusion of White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon on the National Security Council in a forceful op-ed published Monday in The New York Times.

Retired Adm. Michael Mullen, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 2007 to 2011, sharply criticized an executive order President Donald Trump signed last month that gave his chief strategist a permanent seat on the NSC principals committee while allowing the participation of the director of national intelligence and chairman of the Joint Chiefs “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.”

That doesn’t seem to make sense to Mullen, who wrote about his experience in those meetings under former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“In my experience there are very few – if any – meetings of the principals committee at which the input of the military and the intelligence community is not vital,” Mullen wrote. “With an increasingly belligerent Russia, tensions in the South China Sea and a smoldering Middle East, it makes little sense to minimize the participation of the professionals leading and representing these two groups.”

Mullen isn’t the first to criticize Bannon’s allowed involvement in NSC meetings. Republican Sen. John McCain called it a “radical departure” from past practice, and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the sidelining of the top chiefs of the military and intelligence communities was a “big mistake.”

The retired admiral brought up past organizations of the NSC, such as under Bush, who did not allow his political adviser Karl Rove to attend. And while Obama’s adviser David Axelrod attended some meetings early on, Mullen wrote, he didn’t speak or vote on any of the topics.

That’s not the case with Bannon, who will have voting rights in high-level national-security discussions.

“Having Mr. Bannon as a voting member of the principals committee will have a negative influence on what is supposed to be candid, nonpartisan deliberation,” Mullen wrote. “I fear that it will have a chilling effect on deliberations and, potentially, diminish the authority and the prerogatives to which Senate-confirmed Cabinet officials are entitled. They, unlike Mr. Bannon, are accountable for the advice they give and the policies they execute.”

He called Bannon’s presence on the committee “unhealthy for the republic.”

Mullen isn’t known for making partisan political statements. Since retiring in 2011, he’s mostly stayed out of the limelight, teaching classes on diplomacy and military affairs at Princeton and joining some corporate boards.

“Admiral Mullen worked for Bush 43 and Obama,” said Ward Carroll, the president of Military One Click and a retired Navy commander who served with and remains close to Mullen. “He is motivated by service, not politics. He wouldn’t have made this kind of effort if he wasn’t deeply concerned about our national-security posture.”

Read the full op-ed »