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WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's spokesman says "nothing has changed" in the national security apparatus of the White House despite a reorganization of the National Security Council. The claim is not so, on its face. But do the changes matter?
Yes, says Republican Sen. John McCain, who sees a "radical departure." Double yes, says Barack Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, who calls the whole thing "stone cold crazy."
Is someone peddling alternative facts around here?
It may be that only time will tell. Although press secretary Sean Spicer vigorously played down the changes, Trump is treading new ground in making his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, a regular attendee at meetings of the council's Cabinet-level subgroup, the Principals Committee, and in inviting him to attend any meeting of the full council. In the process, military and intelligence leaders have been shuffled in a bureaucratic shell game that may or may not amount to much in the long run.
Some questions and answers about the security structure and the shakeup:
What's the NSC?
It was formed in 1947 to advise the president on foreign, military and domestic policies related to the country's security and to enhance cooperation among departments on all such matters. By law, the president, vice president, secretary of state, defense secretary — and, since 2007, the energy secretary — are members. Also by law, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the national intelligence director are advisers to the council.
But the law only goes so far in shaping the council. Presidents also designate many officials of their choosing and determine who comes to which meetings.
What did Trump do?
He made Bannon a regular member of the Principals Committee, and able to come to full council meetings as well. He also bumped the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the national intelligence director from their positions as regular members of the Principals Committee. Instead they will attend when "issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed," under Trump's memorandum.
That is likely to be often, given the council's mandate. But as the groups now are structured, a strategist who is central in driving Trump's political agenda is apt to be at some meetings when military and intelligence leaders are not. For them, this is a step back from what their status had been in Obama's National Security Council.
Defenders of the change say there's no need to involve military or intelligence officials for matters such as natural disasters, pandemics or international economic crises that may be taken up by the NSC.
What's new here?
In short, the growing influence of a political strategist at the intersection of politics and security.
In the administration of George W. Bush, adviser Karl Rove had the president's ear on all matters but was barred from council meetings to keep security and politics separate in those deliberations.
"We didn't advertise that, but the president made that clear right at the beginning — if it's an NSC meeting, you may not appear," Josh Bolten, who was Bush's chief of staff, said in reference to Rove. "And it wasn't because he didn't respect Karl's advice or didn't value his input. He valued it enormously."
Obama arguably breached this wall, letting strategist David Axelrod come to some sessions. Axelrod says he wanted to be conversant on national security policymaking but sat on the sidelines and kept quiet.
Now Trump further crumbles the wall by installing Bannon as a regular participating member.
As for the Joint Chiefs chairman and intelligence director, their counterparts at the outset of the Bush administration were not regular members, so this phase of Trump's recast largely reverts to the structure then.
It leaves as an open question, though, whether tensions between Trump and the intelligence community during the campaign have spilled over.
What's the worry?
Trump's memo prompted Rice, fresh off her job as Obama's national security adviser, to lash out in a series of tweets, one saying, "This is stone cold crazy. After a week of crazy."
She asked sarcastically, "Who needs military advice or intell to make policy on ISIL, Syria, Afghanistan ..." and she shared an incendiary tweet that accused Trump of adding a "Nazi," meaning Bannon, to the council.
A more measured McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, described Trump's national security team as "very impressive" but Bannon's elevation as a "radical departure from any National Security Council in history." Other lawmakers from both parties spoke in kind.
Bolten, addressing a Texas conference in September, said Bush kept Rove away from the NSC because he wanted everyone to know that his decisions "that involve life and death for the people in uniform will not be tainted by any political decisions."
Even so, presidents have wide latitude to shape the council as they want. Defense specialist Richard A. Best Jr., in a 2011 analysis and history of the body for the government's nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, said: "Both in its staff organization and functioning, the NSC is extremely responsive to the preferences and working methods of each president and administration."
Does it matter?
Axelrod contends the NSC elevation means Bannon will exercise authority no political adviser has had before. That remains to be seen, for any president's smallest and most influential circle of advisers is determined by the president himself, regardless of any bureaucratic structure.
The importance of the NSC and its makeup depends on how heavily presidents lean on it, and Best's congressional report found that the experience has varied.
Dwight Eisenhower, who prized organization, used it as the principal arm for formulating and coordinating military, international and internal security affairs, the report says, though even he was thought to have made key decisions in the Oval Office in the presence of only a few.
Lyndon Johnson made weighty decisions about the Vietnam War at Tuesday lunches with his defense chief, secretary of state and a couple of others, giving the NSC short shrift. Richard Nixon's NSC, and much of his foreign policy, came to be dominated by a circle of one — Henry Kissinger.