WASHINGTON – President-elect Donald Trump's future national security adviser said Tuesday he would press on with President Barack Obama's changes to the National Security Council, suggesting no wholesale fix is in store for the body of foreign policy professionals who often provide the last word before the commander in chief's decisions.
At a conference focused on national security and the presidential transition, retired Gen. Michael Flynn sought to stress continuity in America's national security structure after an election dominated by Trump's calls for a rupture in much of Washington's agenda in international affairs. Flynn spoke of "working toward a common national security goal," free from partisan wrangling.
But the challenge of transforming Trump's promises into bipartisan policy was underscored at the same event by Secretary of State John Kerry, who warned of the rise of a "factless political environment" in which policy is made on Twitter and said Trump's "America First" policy could lead to a U.S. retreat from the world. Kerry was followed by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who highlighted the dangers Russia and North Korea pose to the United States no matter which party holds the presidency.
Flynn called his future job, which doesn't require Senate confirmation, "an awesome responsibility" that "gets to the pure essence of protecting the American people, our homeland and our Constitution."
After Rice stressed that Trump and future presidents should be able to staff the NSC as they wish, Flynn said Trump's incoming team was "committed to carrying out the necessary reforms begun by previous administrations."
The transition team has been considering ways to restructure intelligence agencies to streamline operations and improve efficiency. It is looking at changes at both the Director of National Intelligence's office and the CIA, according to a person familiar with the plan who wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity. Less clear is if any redesign is in store for the NSC, which recent presidents increasingly have leaned on but which critics have seen as a bloated agency that takes away from established bodies like the Pentagon and the State Department.
Rice said staff had been reduced 15 percent during her tenure. "The issue is not mainly about the size of the NSC, it's about the role of the NSC," she said.
Rice promised to help Flynn despite her administration's "profound disagreements with the next one."
But Kerry lamented his lack of contact with Trump's new team.
On the State Department's transition, Kerry half-jokingly said it was going "pretty smoothly" because "there is not an enormous amount of it."
He said he had yet to meet Trump's choice to replace him as America's top diplomat, Exxon Mobil chief Rex Tillerson, though he expects to do so "in the near term" and still believes there is time for "an ample debriefing" before the new administration begins.
Rejecting criticism that Obama had failed to lead in dealing with world crises, Kerry said "we've been leading" and pointed to the Iran nuclear deal, Paris climate change agreement, response to the Ebola virus, strengthening NATO and his own unsuccessful efforts to end Syria's civil war. He said charges that the administration mishandled the Arab Spring revolts against authoritarian leaders were wrong.
With only 10 days left in his tenure, Kerry called for a new "Marshall Plan" to help countries in critical regions around the world educate their exploding youth populations and prevent them from being radicalized.
Lack of education and the spread of misinformation, notably online, are serious threats that must be confronted to prevent a rise of "authoritarian populism" that threatens the international order, Kerry said. He accused Russia of mounting a "''horrendous invasion of our democratic process" by interfering in the 2016 presidential election and said such actions must be combatted.
"One of the greatest challenges we all face right now, not just America but every country, is that we are living in a factless political environment," Kerry said.
He did not mention Trump by name but took a thinly veiled shot at the president-elect's propensity to tweet his views on policy issues.
"If policy is going to be made in 140 characters on Twitter and every reasonable measure of accountability is being bypassed and people don't care about it, we have a problem," Kerry said.