Elephants in the Room

Give Trump’s National Security Team Some Time. They’re Just Getting Started.

The president continues to be irascible toward allies, imperturbable toward Russia, and acting with reckless disregard for consequences. But his team ain't so bad.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 28: President Donald Trump signs three executive actions in the Oval Office on January 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. The actions outline a reorganization of the National Security Council, implement a five year lobbying ban on administration officials and a lifetime ban on administration officials lobbying for a foreign country and calls on military leaders to present a report to the president in 30 days that outlines a strategy for defeating ISIS.  (Photo by Pete Marovich - Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 28: President Donald Trump signs three executive actions in the Oval Office on January 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. The actions outline a reorganization of the National Security Council, implement a five year lobbying ban on administration officials and a lifetime ban on administration officials lobbying for a foreign country and calls on military leaders to present a report to the president in 30 days that outlines a strategy for defeating ISIS. (Photo by Pete Marovich - Pool/Getty Images)

National security policy in the Trump presidency is off to a wild start. The president continues to be irascible toward allies, imperturbable toward Russia, and acting with reckless disregard for consequences. Former National Security Council director Jonathan Stevenson poses the question of whether these early days of the Trump administration reveal ineptitude or a radical reorientation of American policies, and settles for concluding both are true. Tom Nichols issued a salutatory corrective to this breathless criticism: hyping the threat of Trump decisions during the transition as unprecedented is in many instances inaccurate, serves to consolidate his supporters, and will desensitize voters to genuine dangers.

To take the example of the memorandum on the National Security Council, which has been widely reported as “demoting” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and lead intelligence representative (which has changed in the interim with creation of the Director of National Intelligence). Yet the language is identical to that in President George W. Bush’s 2001 executive order on the same subject. Suggesting a grievous civil-military peril of the president isolated from the input of military and intelligence professionals has served to obscure the more important issue of formally including a political counselor — namely, Stephen Bannon — in national security decisionmaking. But there, too, Stevenson and others wrongly treat Bannon’s inclusion in the Principals’ Committee as without precursor, when President Barack Obama had earlier blurred the line between political and national security issues by allowing his political advisor into the meetings. Arguing technicalities like whether David Axelrod had a formal vote is hardly a man-the-ramparts distinction.

A reasonable case could be made that politicos have a valuable role to play in ensuring domestic support for national security decisions, or that deconflicting, sequencing, and prioritizing the president’s efforts is legitimately a political counselor’s job. Neither Obama nor Trump have tried to make that case, and politicizing national security decisions leaves them more vulnerable to being criticized by the opposition party or overturned by successive administrations. But it is completely defensible for the president to organize the national security process largely to his liking.

Moreover, it is pointless (and probably a violation of the separation of powers) for Congress to attempt to legislate practices that don’t suit the president’s needs. Will Wechsler from the Center for American Progress and I conducted a study of NSC best practices, in which we interviewed leading policymakers from both parties, and the main finding was that formal interagency processes are meaningless unless they match the managerial practices of the president. When they do not, as in the Obama administration’s initial aspiration to run a Scowcroft-type interagency process, informal practices develop to better provide the president information, preserve private deliberation with trusted advisors, and conduct diplomacy. As Madeleine Albright told us about the Obama NSC, “it is working the way the president wants it to,” meaning that Obama himself organized the process to marginalize the views of the military, diplomatic, and intelligence professionals and pursue his national security policies in the company of Tom Donilon, David Axelrod, Denis McDonough, and Ben Rhodes.

Finding ways to match this president’s management will be no small feat. But there is good reason to believe that as Cabinet departments are staffed up and execution of policies begins, power will shift away from the White House. The start of most presidential administrations is chaotic because jobs are not yet filled and everybody’s newly working together. This transition is more chaotic than most because a) the Trump team was unprepared, b) many experienced conservative policymakers declined to support the candidate, and c) this president’s management style is less structured than most. But he appointed mostly qualified people to the Cabinet, many of whom are known to disagree with some of his more virulent prescriptions.

Vice President Mike Pence is headed to Europe with reassuring words, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was only just confirmed (but gave a solid opening performance in reassuring his department), and Secretary of Defense James Mattis has been a model diplomat. Showing he understands the importance of symbols for countries reliant on American partnership, Mattis’s first phone call was to the Canadian defense minister, the second to his Mexican counterpart, and third to the NATO secretary general. He took his first overseas trip on his second week in office, to bolster Asian allies that had been badly shaken by candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric. And he threatened our adversaries (saying North Korea would face withering retaliation for any attack on South Korea) and reassured our friends (publicly committing that the United States would aid Japan in any conflict over disputed territory).

The president may yet rebuke his Cabinet for pursuing polices at odds with his proclivities, but it looks more as though Trump’s wilder tendencies and reckless loyalists in the White House are being reined in as processes of national security decision making are found by the most recent band of amateurs in whom the American voters have reposed their trust.

Photo credit: PETE MAROVICH – Pool/Getty Images

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