Who Can Right Flynn’s Dysfunctional National Security Council?
The president’s next national security advisor will need to tame the chaos left by Michael Flynn while battling internal rivals.
The abrupt resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn on Monday night has left the Trump administration’s already-tottering national security apparatus reeling, and highlighted deep divisions in a young White House marred by mismanagement, infighting, and leaks.
Among the names circulating as Flynn’s replacement are retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, acting national security advisor; retired Gen. David Petraeus; former Vice Adm. Bob Harward; and Robert Kimmitt, another retired Army officer and former State Department and Treasury official, and veteran of the National Security Council (NSC).
A key challenge for the next national security advisor will be finding a way to restore trust with Trump’s cabinet secretaries and gain the confidence of the current NSC staff, many of whom were hired by Flynn. It’s unclear how many of Flynn’s deputies and subordinates will follow him out the door.
Initial reports Tuesday said that Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland would leave the White House with Flynn. But McFarland told media outlets that the president has asked her to stay on in her current position. “I just met with the president and he asked that I stay on. I’m thrilled to do so,” she said in a statement.
And while removing Flynn, some officials said, might make it easier to recruit for the NSC, his successor will still have to contend with rival centers of power inside the White House, especially from chief strategist Steve Bannon, who is playing an unusually prominent role on the NSC.
Harward, who worked as deputy to then-Gen. James Mattis at U.S. Central Command from 2011 to 2013, appears to be in pole position for the job, according to sources. If picked, he would likely reinforce the Trump administration’s hawkish stance on Iran, one former official at Central Command said. “The Gulf allies and Israel should be very reassured,” he said. “Harward was very strong on wanting to push back on Iranian influence and activity in the region.”
The 72-year-old Kellogg appears a less likely choice, despite his strong support for Trump from the early days of his presidential campaign, and Kimmitt had already taken himself out of the running for the No. 2 spot at the State Department last December, making his acceptance a long shot. Petraeus might have strong backing from some on the NSC and on Capitol Hill, but he still has two months of probation left on his 2015 conviction for mishandling classified information.
Flynn’s ouster creates a possible opportunity to fix one of the glaring flaws of Flynn’s NSC, according to several U.S. officials. His chaotic management style left senior cabinet officials angry and out of the loop, and coupled with suspicions over his ties to Russia, turned off qualified job seekers recruited for the many vacancies in the Trump administration.
“More people will be willing to work at the NSC now,” suggested a senior GOP Senate staffer, referring to the National Security Council.
“Lots of people were turning down NSC postings because of Flynn,” said a Trump administration official.
The senior ranks of the NSC are not just a collection of Flynn loyalists, making it more likely that the new chief would be able to work with them, said one person who has worked with NSC officials, and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Most are not Flynn people. Some are Petraeus people, some are [Defense Secretary Jim] Mattis people, and have their own appeal to Trump and Bannon in their own right,” the person said.
A small group of active-duty and retired U.S. Army officers who oversee critical NSC portfolios have deep ties to Petraeus in particular, but are expected to stay.
Chief among them is retired U.S. Army Col. Derek Harvey, who sits at the head of the NSC Middle East and North Africa team. Harvey played a major role in tracking the Iraqi insurgency that formed after the U.S. invasion in 2003 and dissolution of the Iraqi army.
Michael Bell, another former colonel, serves as the NSC director for Gulf Affairs, and served stints on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and a management position at the National Defense University. Both men were hand-picked by Petraeus when he returned to Iraq in 2007 to lead the “surge” of 30,000 U.S. troops sent to salvage the faltering war effort by waging a counterinsurgency campaign that sought the buy-in of the Iraqi population.
Then there’s Col. Joel Rayburn, who is the director of the Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria desk at the NSC. A highly-regarded Army intelligence officer, Rayburn not only wrote the Pentagon’s official history of the Iraq War, but a book published in 2014, Iraq after America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance.
That suggests that the administration’s tough approach to Iran will outlast Flynn, who on Feb. 2 put Iran “on notice“ for its “provocative” testing of ballistic missiles and support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Trump’s ultimate vision for dismantling what he calls “Iran’s global terror network” remains in place, the NSC advisor said. The council remains “absolutely behind those ideas. There shouldn’t be any question about that.”
In explaining Flynn’s departure, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on Tuesday that Trump “was very concerned that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others.”
Flynn, by his own acknowledgement, failed to tell Vice President Mike Pence that he discussed the issue of lifting some Russia sanctions during a December phone call he had with the Russian ambassador to Washington. Pence, taking Flynn at his word, denied that sanctions were discussed during a subsequent TV interview.
“The president must have complete and unwavering trust of the person in the position,” said Spicer.
He also said Trump was briefed on the Department of Justice’s concerns over the content of Flynn’s calls immediately after they were conveyed to White House staff shortly after the inauguration. Trump waited more than two weeks to demand Flynn’s resignation.
John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson