Ideologues in Trump White House Cut ‘Grown-ups’ Out of the Loop
Key cabinet officers are struggling to moderate the impulsive president and the political operatives shaping national security policy.
The U.S. Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson as secretary of state on Wednesday. But he might not be the real man in charge of American diplomacy.
Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly were supposed to be the “grown-ups,” the rational elders who would bring a note of caution and experience to the Trump administration.
But after less than two weeks in office, doubts are growing among lawmakers and career government officials that those seasoned hands have much say in White House decision-making or much influence over the impulsive president and his inner circle, led by the anti-globalist, right-wing ideologue Stephen Bannon.
Every president enters the White House with a close circle of advisors who enjoy greater access to the commander in chief than cabinet officials who technically outrank them. But the Trump administration may be entering unchartered territory as Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s influential son-in-law, seek to solidify their informal power through a new national security architecture that could marginalize professionals and inject politics into security decisions.
A flurry of hastily drafted presidential decisions and statements over the past 12 days has highlighted the role played by Trump’s inner circle, especially Bannon, a self-described “economic nationalist” who masterminded Trump’s “America First” campaign championing isolationism and protectionism.
That is worrisome to many lawmakers, including Republicans, who had reservations about Trump but who were reassured by the inclusion of Mattis, in particular, in the administration. After Trump spent months as a candidate questioning the value of alliances in Europe and Asia, denigrating the U.S. intelligence community, and flippantly proposing war crimes, they saw Mattis’s presence at the Pentagon as insurance against any potential excesses from the White House.
But the Trump White House has blindsided the retired Marine general on several major issues. Before Trump even entered office, his aides announced the appointment of a U.S. Army secretary without consulting Mattis, current and former officials told Foreign Policy.
Last week, reports of a draft order on reviewing torture tactics leaked, another unpleasant surprise for Mattis, who had publicly promised lawmakers that he opposed reviving outlawed interrogation methods — and who seemed to have convinced Trump on his way of thinking. The president subsequently said he would defer to Mattis on the issue.
And last Friday, Trump issued an executive order halting entry into the United States for all refugees and travelers from seven majority Muslim countries — without input from Mattis. Last year, the former head of U.S. Central Command had sharply criticized the idea of barring Muslim immigrants or refugees as counterproductive for U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
“So far, it’s not reassuring,” one Republican congressional staffer said of Mattis’s treatment by the White House. “And if this continues, you have to ask yourself, ‘How long will he be willing to put up with this?'”
Lawmakers from both parties had similar expectations for the Homeland Security secretary, Kelly, another retired U.S. Marine general, who they hoped would bring a measure of common sense and pragmatism to border security. But Trump’s travel ban has raised serious questions about Kelly’s real sway in the administration. The ban — which many government officials say was drafted with only cursory input from government agencies — has sparked global outrage, legal challenges, and an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.
Kelly denied reports that he had not been properly consulted or briefed in advance, and he vigorously defended the measure at a news conference Tuesday, saying it had caused “minimal” inconvenience to a small number of people.
However, even some Republicans in Congress complained that the administration had bungled the order and accused the White House of steamrolling Kelly’s department. And it remained unclear to what degree Kelly had tried to argue against some provisions of the extraordinary measures — such as barring legal U.S. residents from entering the country — that caused chaotic scenes at airports.
In his confirmation hearings, Kelly had told senators that he had not discussed with Trump nor committed to the notion of “extreme vetting” for potential refugees, a possible national registry to track Muslims, or a proposed ban on Muslim immigrants. He also assured lawmakers that Trump wasn’t “proposing new limits for Muslim travel and immigration to the United States.” And he openly disagreed with Trump and his team’s perception of Muslim refugees or immigrants as security risks.
But the order, which reflects Trump and Bannon’s preoccupation with the dangers of “radical Islam” and the threat allegedly posed by immigration, has led some previous supporters to question whether their faith in Kelly as a check on Trump’s more extreme instincts was misplaced.
Trump’s secretary of state, Tillerson, already found himself outside of the White House loop before he even came on board. His Republican supporters view the former corporate chief as a safe pair of hands able to navigate the international arena, despite a lack of any governmental or diplomatic experience. But Tillerson was not consulted about the executive order on immigration, and as he takes over at the State Department, he faces a growing internal rebellion by more than 1,000 employees who signed an internal “dissent” memo objecting to the travel ban because of its negative effects overseas.
The isolation of Mattis, Kelly, and Tillerson is the mirror image of the central role carved out by Bannon. A presidential memo issued Saturday granted Bannon a permanent seat on the National Security Council principals committee, causing consternation across the government and military. Kushner and Bannon are also establishing a new subsection of the NSC called the Strategic Initiatives Group (SIG), an in-house office of advisors who report directly to the former Breitbart executive and Trump son-in-law. The SIG, first reported by the Daily Beast, has yet to be filled, according to a source familiar with the operation.
“They are actively recruiting for it,” the individual told FP. “They are leaning on this group hard [because] they don’t have enough aides with clearances. It’s a total shit show.”
The expertise in demand for the new group includes the Middle East and China, where Trump has shown an interest in overhauling previous U.S. policy. The top Trump aides running the unit are Assistant to the President Chris Liddell and Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism analyst and former Breitbart editor. Gorka and Bannon share a profound skepticism of Islam and the belief that the West and the Muslim world are on a violent collision course.
Although the effect of the SIG could result in a further marginalization of Trump’s cabinet, its main objective is reportedly to put a check on the national security advisor, Michael Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who installed former colleagues in military intelligence throughout the NSC, consolidating his power early on.
The changes at the National Security Council could lead to a more chaotic policymaking process than the model favored by previous administrations, which sought to leverage expertise across government departments, said Paul Pillar, a 28-year CIA veteran who retired as the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia.
“The political advisors in the White House, principally Mr. Bannon, will have a disproportionate influence,” Pillar said. Pushing aside military and intelligence figures in favor of men like Bannon, he said, is representative of “the low value this president and his entourage place on facts and on truth.”
The hasty way the White House handled the travel ban, with a small group of senior aides rushing it through without a full discussion among legal experts or a communications plan for how it would be explained to the public, shows the risks of relying on political operatives, former officials said.
“Politics has completely invaded policy, including national security policy,” said a former senior intelligence official, citing the immigration executive order as an example. “It wasn’t put together by the traditional national security policy process but by a political process led by Bannon.”
“The executive order sells politically among the base, and it sells really, really well,” said the former intelligence official. “But it’s horrible policy.”
FP reporters Molly O’Toole and Elias Groll contributed to this article.
Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce