Elephants in the Room

A Step Toward Better National Security Coordination in the Trump White House

Dina Powell, Trump's pick for assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor, is smart, experienced, deft, well-connected, and trusted.

Goldman Sachs Foundation, and global head of corporate engagement, Dina Powell attends  the CEO Roundtable on the sidelines of the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 20, 2016 in New York. / AFP / JIM WATSON        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Goldman Sachs Foundation, and global head of corporate engagement, Dina Powell attends the CEO Roundtable on the sidelines of the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 20, 2016 in New York. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

I am encouraged by President Donald Trump’s decision to name Dina Powell as assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for strategy. She is smart, experienced, deft, well-connected and, most importantly, trusted by the current team of top Trump advisors. (Full disclosure: she has been a friend ever since she interviewed me for my own job in the Bush 43 White House and she spoke to my program at Duke when she visited this fall.)

The Powell appointment moves the administration a bit further forward on the path towards a White House process that simultaneously fits Trump’s style and also offers the prospect of producing coherent, well-vetted policies.

As Will Inboden and I have written elsewhere, presidents get the White House process that they want. Efforts to design “optimal” systems that ignore the reality of how the president takes in information, weighs alternatives, and makes decisions are doomed to fail. However, as Will and I argued in that same chapter, a system that fits the president yet ignores best practices and lessons learned in previous administrations is also doomed to fail.

The challenge of organizing for national security is adapting best practices to the distinctive style of the commander-in-chief, and building in hedges that compensate for its downsides (every presidential style has a downside).

Trump is inclined towards a process that relies heavily on overlapping (potentially competing) lines of influence among a small and somewhat shifting constellation of trusted aides. He also is inclined to distrust the larger Federal bureaucracy, on which he nevertheless must rely to implement his policies.

This is a system that has the upside of flexibility and a capacity to make new and bold decisions relatively quickly. But it has the downside of producing decisions that need to be revised just as quickly because some angle was not well-anticipated — or yielding decisions that wither because they do not have buy-in from the implementing wings of the government.

There are ways to mitigate the downsides, however, including a) empowering better coordination within the White House, particularly within the West Wing, b) more tightly lashing up that coordination to the implementing departments and agencies, and c) conducting ongoing strategic assessment — a process of balancing ends, ways, and means that critically and candidly evaluates the unintended consequences of preferred policies.

That is the historical role of the NSC staff and is job No. 1 of the national security advisor. When the national security advisor has a longstanding relationship with the president, is widely seen as the closest advisor to the president, and is empowered to play traffic cop, then the system can work fairly well relying heavily on formal mechanisms. That’s the Brent Scowcroft model.

When the national security advisor is still building that relationship of trust with the president and shares access to the president on national security matters with other advisors even closer to the president, then the NSC system needs additional measures. That’s the Trump model. I interpret Dina Powell’s new position as one of those additional measures.

Powell appears to be dual-hatted and, more importantly, dual reporting — through National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and through Jared Kushner, the senior advisor to the president.

McMaster’s position is the traditional senior-most White House official responsible for national security affairs. Kushner’s role is not explicitly defined, but the president clearly trusts him on myriad national security issues and thus he has played an NSA-like role. Indeed, that is why I recommended that the president tap Kushner for the formal role, since he already was performing a good deal of that function.

Instead, Trump has appointed a very capable person in McMaster, and has now taken other steps to empower his national security advisor to coordinate effectively across the other centers of power in the White House — which is what I think the Powell appointment has a good chance of accomplishing.

Powell will not be the principal deputy national security advisor, the operational role currently filled by K. T. McFarland. Instead, her title is “Strategy,” a functional area that can be quite large or quite narrow — depending on the capacities and influence of the strategist involved.

Powell starts out with an impressive pile of capacities. She is commissioned as an assistant to the president, the highest formal rank in the White House. She clearly has the trust of two of the most influential figures in the West Wing, McMaster and Kushner, and, I infer, she must also have the trust of Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, and, of course, Trump himself.

But, unusual for this White House, she has extensive prior experience in government, having served as assistant to the president for personnel in the Bush 43 White House and then as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs in Bush’s second term. So she knows how a well-functioning White House works, and she knows what departments can and cannot do. Thus, she is likely to work well with Secretary Rex Tillerson’s team at State and Secretary James Mattis’s team at the Pentagon.

By virtue of this experience and her position at Goldman Sachs, she also has strong connections to business, foreign policy, and societal leaders across the political spectrum. That said, she has a daunting assignment. The overlapping offices and functions at the White House that make her role critical also make her role difficult.

One early challenge will be forging an effective team out of the other senior players at the deputy level already in the “strategy” space, including Kevin Harrington, who is deputy assistant to the president for strategic planning and Sebastian Gorka, who is deputy assistant to the president with a national security portfolio on the Strategic Initiatives Group. She also must work well with the other assistants to the president with national security strategy in their title, or their function: Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and perhaps others.

And, of course, Powell must also continue to earn the trust of President Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence, the only two people in the administration picked directly by the voters to take responsibility for national security strategy.

If she lives up to her potential, I think she will do just that and, along the way, help the administration forge a more effective process befitting the president’s style and the challenges our country faces.

Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/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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