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Trump’s National Security Council Changes Aren’t Unusual — For The Most Part

President Trump issued a presidential memorandum on Saturday that outlined the organizational chart for his National Security Council — a group of advisers who help the president make decisions about issues of national and international security. This is typically not the kind of news that ignites the fires of the public imagination. Every new president issues a memorandum like this. It’s one of those basic housekeeping tasks of setting up a new administration — like making sure the electric bill gets transferred over to your name, or drawing up a chore list detailing which roommate will be in charge of cleaning the toilet.

But Trump’s memorandum has garnered a lot of attention, even from people who may not typically follow the internal politics of the executive office. According to Google Trends, searches for “National Security Council” in the United States have surged. As of Tuesday, searches for that term make up a higher share of all searches than Google has seen since it began tracking this data in 2004.

The public interest in the council centers on who Trump has chosen to be part of the NSC and its Principals Committee — a group of the most senior NSC members who can meet without the president — and who he has jettisoned. The director of national intelligence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of energy are no longer regular members of the Principals Committee, who attend every meeting. The CIA director and the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy appear to no longer be members of either the Principals Committee or the NSC as a whole. And both committees will now include Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, who has no foreign or domestic security experience — his background is in finance and media.

Experts are most concerned about the elevation of Bannon, a move that they say is out of step with what previous presidents have done and that risks crossing the streams of horse-race politics and international security (or at least appearing to). As the publisher of Breitbart, a right-wing news website, Bannon oversaw a shift toward content that has frequently given a platform to the white nationalist movement, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The rest of the changes to the NSC are, on their own, not especially unusual, experts said. As with some of the administration’s other science-related changes that have drawn fire, the issue here seems to be less that Trump has done something wildly out of the ordinary and more that the administration appears to be going a few degrees beyond normal practice while also making decisions that, taken together with other actions and statements from the president, could be interpreted as a sidelining of intelligence and scientific expertise. (Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, did not respond to a request for comment.)

David Heyman, a security and policy expert who worked for the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama and for the White House and the Department of Energy under President Bill Clinton, says that the order seems to show either a lack of understanding of how the council makes decisions “or a deliberate rejection of intelligence and fact-based decision-making.” Heyman attended National Security Council meetings under the Obama administration and said he did the same during the Clinton administration.

The role of the NSC changes a bit depending on the president, but, in general, it is a body tasked with aggregating complex information, summarizing it in an understandable way for the president, and helping him make decisions about what to do based on the evidence, said Heyman and Joshua Rovner, chair of international politics and national security at Southern Methodist University’s Tower Center for Political Studies. Intelligence evidence can sometimes be a part of that. As can scientific evidence. The secretary of energy and the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (which provides the president with expert advice and analysis on a range of science and tech issues), for instance, bring deep expertise to discussions about nuclear proliferation, weapons readiness, the verification of whether other countries are following various treaties, sanctions related to the oil and gas trade, and relationships with countries whose energy policies are an important part of global security.

Presidents typically reshuffle the membership of the NSC and the Principals Committee, and these fact-finding participants have been moved on and off the regular meeting rosters before — the secretary of energy, for example, was not part of President George W. Bush’s NSC until 2007. And people who aren’t on the NSC or its list of regularly invited guests can still be brought in if their expertise is needed. For example, the Health and Human Services secretary was not a member of the NSC under Obama but did attend NSC meetings during the Ebola crisis, Heyman said.

John Bellinger III, an international and national security lawyer who was a legal adviser to the NSC under Bush, has written that because Trump’s memorandum combines the Principals Committees for national and international security into a single body, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to have people who are strictly focused on one or the other attend all meetings. “If the PC meets to discuss purely domestic homeland security issues, it would not be appropriate to have the secretary of energy attend,” he wrote in an email. “Moreover, the majority of national security issues discussed by the PC do not involve energy or nuclear issues.”

But other security experts expressed reservations similar to Heyman’s.

Trump’s statements during the campaign about various scientific issues have been criticized by scientists and advocates of science. “It sort of suggested that that just wasn’t important for him,” Rovner said. “When you look at the fact that [the Office of Science and Technology Policy] is now off the NSC in any capacity and energy has been downgraded, that’s not good news to me. It’s more likely that reflects his priorities.”

Questions about the roles that the secretary of energy, the director of the OSTP, the CIA director and the director of national intelligence will have in future NSC decision-making are impossible to answer right now, said Elizabeth Saunders, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. But much will depend on the administration’s priorities and internal politics. “Will they have any say at these meetings? You really can’t tell from this piece of paper,” she said. “It’s going to be fought out at the sort of bureaucratic turf level. It comes down to, Does somebody feel the need to have the energy secretary in these meetings? Do people value OSTP, national security? To make OSTP relevant at those meetings, someone has to care about what OSTP does.”

Heyman agreed. If there is less scientific or intelligence expertise in the room, it may be difficult for the people who are there to know when they should invite that expertise in. During the Obama administration, for example, there was a point when the Department of Homeland Security had a strong relationship with India while other parts of the government didn’t. As a result, Homeland Security became a part of NSC discussions about that country, even though that wasn’t necessarily part of its administrative purview.

And the lack of a voice on the NSC can have ripple effects that diminish morale in an agency. For instance, President Richard Nixon also sidelined the CIA director in the NSC, originally intending to exclude the agency entirely or to have the director come in at the beginning of the meeting, present a brief report and then leave, Rovner said. The CIA director ended up attending the meetings in a fuller capacity, according to CIA documents. But Rovner said this led to strained relations between the CIA and the executive branch, including, CIA agents putting up anti-Nixon posters in their workspaces. For the science and intelligence communities, this move could build on disaffection that has been growing for months.

Ultimately, Heyman said, it’s probably better to err on the side of inclusivity with regard to regular NSC membership. There is such a thing as too many members, he said; you wouldn’t want all the federal agencies there all the time. But “you’ve got a very large government bureaucracy with tremendous capability and experience and expertise and knowledge and wisdom,” he said. “When you’re making these decisions, which are the hardest decisions — they don’t get to the NSC because they’re easy; they’re hard — you want the best minds and the breadth of the power of the full resources of the executive branch.”


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Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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