National Security Council staff members are using President Donald Trump’s tweets as a guideline for policy.
The apparent reason: Their boss, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, has failed to provide them with an “orderly flow of council documents” briefing them on everything from Trump’s calls with foreign leaders to the details of his executive orders.
That’s according to a New York Times report published Sunday, citing more than two dozen current and former NSC staff members. The report, along with other recent developments, paints a picture of a national-security team that is nearing a breaking point, with its leader possibly on the way out.
The NSC staffers are not only struggling to keep up – they are also afraid of losing their jobs. Trump and his inner circle have cracked down on people they suspect to be White House leakers, leading some “nervous staff members” to consider “purging their social media accounts of any suggestion of anti-Trump sentiments,” The Times reported.
Other federal workers, meanwhile, have begun using encrypted messaging apps to communicate.
Trump’s emphasis on loyalty and his distrust of those outside of his inner circle – White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and senior adviser Jared Kushner – has left many national-security staffers, who are supposed to be nonpartisan civil servants, feeling devoid of any influence, according to the Times report.
Trump’s deputy national security adviser, KT McFarland, apparently made the career officials feel uncomfortable when she invoked Trump’s campaign slogan in instructing them during a recent meeting to “make America great again.”
Flynn, meanwhile, appears to be on ever thinning ice. Reports emerged on Friday that Flynn may have falsely suggested he and the Russian ambassador to the US didn’t discuss sanctions during their many phone calls before Trump was sworn into office.
Flynn, a retired general, is also seen by some within the intelligence community as unqualified for the position. A loyal surrogate for Trump during the campaign, Flynn was appointed national security adviser with only two years of bureaucratic experience under his belt at the Defense Intelligence Agency – a position from which he was fired because of “bad management” and being “abusive with staff,” according to Colin Powell, former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Two people with direct access to the White House leadership said Mr. Flynn was surprised to learn that the State Department and Congress play a pivotal role in foreign arms sales and technology transfers,” The Times reported.
“Several staff members said that Mr. Flynn, who was a career Army officer, was not familiar with how to call up the National Guard in an emergency – for, say, a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina or the detonation of a dirty bomb in an American city,” the report continued.
When asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether Trump still had confidence in Flynn, Miller was equivocal.
“It’s not for me to tell you what’s in the president’s mind,” Miller said.
The politicization of the NSC
The politicization of the National Security Council began one week into Trump’s presidency, when he made the unprecedented move of appointing Bannon to the council’s principals committee – the interagency forum that deals with policy issues affecting national security.
“The appointment of Mr. Bannon is something which is a radical departure from any National Security Council in history,” Republican Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” shortly after Trump signed the executive order establishing Bannon’s membership.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence, meanwhile, were seemingly given diminished roles on the committee, though the White House later said that Trump had merely reverted to the way George W. Bush structured his principals committee.
The executive order also made it seem as though Mike Pompeo, the director of the CIA, did not have an open invitation to all principals committee meetings, and the order “had to be amended after it was made public, to reassure Mr. Pompeo that he had a regular seat on the council,” The Times reported.
The confusion surrounding that and other executive orders – including the botched rollout of an immigration order, the constitutionality of which was promptly challenged in court by several states and civil-rights organizations – was the result of blunders, the White House has said.
“The process of reviewing executive orders has been straightened out by Reince Priebus,” The Times reported.
But it was also the result of career military and intelligence officials, interagency civil servants, lawyers, and advisers largely being left out of decisions made by Trump’s “shadow National Security Council.”
That’s how The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin described Bannon, Kushner, and Priebus in a report last month about how anyone outside of Trump’s immediate inner circle begins “at a disadvantage” when it comes to creating and implementing policy.
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Trump’s newly confirmed secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, for example, have seats on the committee. But they will be “fighting for influence in a team of strong personalities who are busily carving up issues, making plans and nurturing already close relationships” with Trump, Rogin wrote, referring to Bannon, Kushner, and Priebus.