Elephants in the Room

Time for Some Creative Solutions At the NSC

Here's how Trump can avoid getting trapped in an H.R. nightmare.


President Donald Trump’s quest to fill the National Security Advisor slot continues. The good news is that Trump has impressive and seasoned names on the list of people he is considering. The bad news is that an equally if not more impressive list of people have apparently turned down the job or been ruled out of consideration.

This is a tough job to fill for many reasons, so I hope the president is thinking creatively about work-arounds to reduce some of the impediments to mere speed bumps.

For instance, one sticking point appears to be the flexibility the new National Security Advisor would have in fleshing out his or her team of subordinates. Apparently this was one of the factors weighing on retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, Trump’s initial choice for the job. Harward wanted to replace principal Deputy National Security Advisor KT McFarland and Trump insisted that she stay.

Because that undid Harward’s candidacy, that issue is likely to be even more of a sticking point for future candidates. As I told the New York Times, ““The problem is that with each successive episode, it raises the stakes for the next one…It’s going to be hard for the next outsider to accept the national security job and not request the ability to make personnel changes.”

Of course, the opposite is also true: having made this a deal-breaker with Harward and apparently others, it is going to be hard for Trump to back down the next time. Not impossible: he understands the art of the deal and the need to add a sweetener when one’s initial offer doesn’t get the response you want. But hard, because it will be perceived as a climb-down.

If folks are stuck inside the box, maybe it is time to think outside the box. One outside the box idea I proposed — appointing Jared Kushner to be NSA — has received no support. I still think there is a logic there, since Kushner increasingly does the functions of the NSA regardless so this would be aligning authority and responsibility. But I won’t lead a one-man parade indefinitely.

However, another outside the box idea would be to keep the existing NSC team, but rejuggle assignments. This would create room for the next NSA to tailor the organization to suit his or her style while also honoring Trump’s desire to have his favored staffers still on board.

For instance, currently McFarland serves as assistant to the president and principal deputy, chairing deputy committee meetings and playing the role of traffic cop for the interagency paper flow. This is a notoriously grueling job with as demanding a pace as any in the White House — but also as intellectually demanding as any. It requires that someone can go from 30,000 feet to the weeds on multiple issues every day, day in and day out. It places a premium on analytical and writing skills; even if the final product to the president is delivered orally, the underlying policy product must be in written form that can be disseminated to ensure proper implementation. And the person filling this job must be able to function as the alter ego to the national security advisor, correctly intuiting what issues need to be kicked upstairs and what issues should continue to be worked at the deputies level.

It is utterly reasonable for the next national security advisor to want to be able to pick that person and it need not be viewed as a knock on McFarland if the next boss wants a different alter ego.

However, McFarland’s background in strategic communication points to another way she could serve without losing her assistant to the president rank. Create a new post: assistant to the pPresident and deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and public engagement. She would retain her top assistant to the president rank, and she would retain her direct report to the NSA status.

Her new portfolio would focus on an area where the administration has thus far been deficient: developing the coherent themes that explain how its various initiatives work together and then engaging supporters, persuadable critics, and the attentive public to make the case. She would help coordinate the work of several other heavy hitters on the senior staff, including Michael Anton and Sebastian Gorka and Victoria Coates, and help the Trump White House push back against the emerging narrative of chaos and dysfunction. As Ben Rhodes showed in the last administration this can be an exceptionally powerful position, so McFarland would not be getting a de facto demotion. On the contrary, if it optimally aligns skills and responsibilities it would empower her to have an even bigger impact on the president’s foreign policy legacy.

This would enable the next NSA to pick his or her own principal policy deputy, whose work could be narrowly focused on the inside game of making the policy trains run on time.

The additional fact of so many openings on the NSC staff created by unexpected staff departures further opens up avenues for the next NSA to assemble his/her own team. Without any mass firings, the next NSA should be able to refashion the staff in a very short time.

A president who wrote the Art of the Deal, should be able to see win-win opportunities like this. The quicker he does, the quicker he can get on to the business of dealing with the difficult challenges confronting our country.

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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