Bannon’s ouster solidifies McMaster’s control over the NSC – Politico
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster quietly slipped out of the White House grounds last week to seek the counsel of one of his aging predecessors, another three-star general who ran the National Security Council in a time of political turmoil and congressional probes.
McMaster’s session with 92-year-old Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser for Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, was the clearest indication yet that McMaster, who took the reins of the NSC in February after his predecessor Mike Flynn was ousted, intends to radically depart from the approach taken by Flynn and President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who was removed from his seat on Wednesday.
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Trump’s directive reorganizing the National Security Council gives McMaster the lines of authority and independence he sought when offered the job and restores the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joe Dunford, as a regular member of the NSC, along with the director of national intelligence, former senator Dan Coats.
An administration official with direct knowledge of the deliberations said the changes are part of broader reforms McMaster is implementing, including reducing the size of the NSC’s professional staff, which ballooned to about 450 under President Barack Obama.
It’s also seen as a major victory in reviving the so-called “Scowcroft model,” in which the national security adviser avoids pushing his own policy agenda in favor of serving as a referee for proposals put forth by NSC staff and the career professionals from national security and foreign policy agencies that also participate in high-level meetings. Scowcroft also established a process in which the national security adviser is heard but rarely seen, his or her influence measured by how much they have the president’s ear in private.
“On paper it is the layered committees, an immensely orderly process,” explained Peter Feaver, who served on the National Security Council staff of President George H.W. Bush and now teaches at Duke University. “You decide everything at the lowest possible level so only the really tough decisions get kicked upstairs. And no meeting about you is without you. Everybody who has an equity gets to play and gets their say.”
That is a stark departure from the way Flynn ran the group during his brief tenure as national security adviser.
In his three-week stint, Flynn established a new layer of hand-picked subordinates, was criticized for shutting out career NSC staff from meetings – and for, at one point, making a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room to announce that “as of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.”
The retired three-star general, who is under investigation by the FBI and Congress for his alleged interactions with the Russian government during the election, was one of the most prominent and hawkish surrogates for Trump during the election campaign – including espousing hard-line views on Islam and leading chants of “lock her up” about opponent Hillary Clinton.
The new NSC organizational directive states, in part, that McMaster, or his sole designee, “shall determine the agenda in consultation with the appropriate committee members.”
It also says that “invitations to participate in or attend a specific principal committee meetings shall be extended at the discretion of the chair, and may include those Cabinet-level heads of executive departments and agencies, and other senior officials, who are needed to address any issue under consideration.”
The biggest change is the removal of Bannon, whose designation as a regular participant in National Security Council meetings was widely seen as a reversal of its apolitical tradition.
“It was not right to have him in that room, in those meetings,” said Brian McKeon, who served as NSC executive secretary under Obama.
The role of Tom Bossert, who serves as Trump’s homeland security adviser and had been a co-equal with Flynn, was also reduced.
“It is further empowers McMaster,” said Laura Holgate, another Obama NSC veteran, who described Bossert, a White House veteran, as “very capable” and highly respected by the NSC staff.
Feaver also said McMaster, who as an Army major wrote a blistering book about White House decision-making during the Vietnam War, appears to be trying to echo another of Scowcroft’s characteristics: being seen as an “honest broker, not a policy entrepreneur” in the vein of Flynn or, Feaver suggested, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Nicholas Rostow, who served on the National Security Council staff under President Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, defined the Scowcroft model another way: “Passion for anonymity. In the words of George Marshall, ‘If you don’t care who gets the credit you can get something done in this town.'”
McMaster’s recent meeting with Scowcroft was described by a person with direct knowledge who not authorized to speak publicly. The person said it was an informal visit to draw on Scowcroft’s experience on how to manage the NSC process, which was first established in 1947.
Scowcroft’s office declined comment. The NSC also declined to comment.
Scowcroft served as national security adviser to Ford when he was a three-star Air Force general, at the height of a series of congressional probes into CIA assassination plots and other abuses by the intelligence agencies that rocked the executive branch.
He was recalled to the job more than a decade later in the wake of the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal that nearly destroyed the NSC in to restore the the credibility of the process.
In 1987, Scowcroft also co-authored the Tower Report, named for then-Sen. John Tower, which reviewed the NSC process and structure in the wake of revelations that staffers violated American policy and law.
“The manner and method by which Brent Scowcroft performed the role became the model or ‘base case’ for all those who came after him,” Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser for President George W. Bush, said in a recent speech.
A former administration official who asked not to be identified said that among the materials that McMaster has reviewed since taking the post were the Tower findings and recommendations.
“This seems to me a return to normalcy,” said Elliott Abrams, who served on the NSC under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and was interviewed by Trump for the post of deputy secretary of state. “McMaster is settling in, hiring people, and beginning to influence the way foreign policy is conducted.”
“It really reflects well on H.R. McMaster, who has orchestrated all the key moves behind the scenes in advance of announcing them and gotten their approval,” added David Rothkopf, author of two histories of the National Security Council, most recently National Insecurity, which looked at the Bush and Obama years.
“That is a sign of a smart, effective bureaucrat and leader. This restores the traditional structures to the NSC. It is putting in place a professional team of national security advisers,” Rothkopf added. “It gives McMaster more authority and restores the roles of the military and intelligence leadership.”
By removing Bannon, Rothkopf added, “this also ensures there is a message sent to the world and the administration there is one National Security Council and one national security adviser, not the hydra-headed monster they seemed to be setting up.”
“I think Trump deserves credit for it,” Rothkopf added. “He executed a lot of changes that might have been awkward for him and his team but all in the national interest and that were called for.”
But Rothkopf and others noted that giving McMaster control over the NSC doesn’t give him sole authority over national security decisionmaking inside Trump’s White House, where Bannon remains top strategist and where son-in-law Jared Kushner holds enormous sway.
“Does [Trump] respect the process he created?” asked Rothkopf. “He is a mercurial guy. He can’t allow himself the luxury of backsliding. He can’t allow Bannon to back-door this process. This is easy to undo.”
Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.