WASHINGTON — The Trump administration defended on Sunday a reorganization of the National Security Council that elevates the president’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, to full membership and downgrades the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Bannon had been considered a political adviser with no direct national security role.
The alteration was contained in a memorandum issued late Saturday defining the organization of the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council, the top decision-making bodies inside the White House on everything from diplomacy to counterterrorism, crisis management, nuclear policy, and cyberpolicy.
Trump’s document drew from organizational precedents in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. But the ascension of Bannon, who until last year was the head of Breitbart News, and the diminishment of the president’s top intelligence and military advisers took Democrats and Republicans by surprise.
The memo said that the intelligence director and the Joint Chiefs chairman would attend the “principals meetings” — the meetings of Cabinet-level officials — only when “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.”
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said Sunday that Bannon’s past service as a US Navy officer merited his attendance at all meetings, as part of a “streamlining” of decision-making.
He did not explain the downgrading of the four-star general who heads the Joint Chiefs, Joseph Dunford, who rose through the Marine Corps and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Well, he is a former naval officer,” Spicer said of Bannon on ABC’s “This Week.” “He’s got a tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape that we have now.”
When pressed on Dunford’s role, Spicer said, “The president gets plenty of information from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
Current and former military officials said they suspected that the decision, in part, was prompted by the national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, who retired as a three-star general after he was dismissed during the Obama administration as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
It was the previous director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, who delivered the news to Flynn that he was being removed from his post.
Throughout the transition, Flynn was reportedly hesitant to place many people around the National Security Council table who had outranked him in the military.
Nonetheless, there are two in the Cabinet: Defense Secretary James Mattis, who retired as a four-star general; and the secretary of homeland security, John F. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general who served 45 years, ending his military career as the commander of US Southern Command.
Both men remain principals on the council.
The CIA director, Mike Pompeo, is not mentioned at all in the reorganization order. But Pompeo’s predecessor, John Brennan, was also not a formal member of the council, though he often attended meetings.
Susan Rice, Flynn’s predecessor as national security adviser, denounced the downgrading of the intelligence director and the Joint Chiefs chairman. “This is stone cold crazy,” she wrote on Twitter. “Who needs military advice or intell to make policy on ISIL, Syria, Afghanistan, DPRK,” she said, using abbreviations for the Islamic State and North Korea.
Robert Gates, a former Defense secretary, also appearing on ABC, questioned the wisdom of the move.
John Bellinger, who was the counsel to the National Security Council during Bush’s administration, noted in a commentary on the Lawfare blog that Bannon’s role was highly unusual, because “the NSC function usually does not include participants from the political side of the White House.” He noted that Karl Rove, Bush’s top political strategist, did not attend council meetings.
But in the early days of the Obama administration, David Axelrod, also a top political strategist, did attend many meetings resetting policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan — as a guest, but not as a full member of the council.
In a separate executive order signed Saturday, Trump strengthened certain restrictions on lobbying that had been adopted under Obama, while weakening others.
Executive branch employees, including those in the White House, will now be barred for five years after they leave government from lobbying the federal agency where they worked.
Under Obama, they had to wait until the end of the administration, meaning a shorter ban for some departing officials.
Former executive branch officials will now also be permanently banned from serving as foreign lobbyists.
Rules banning lobbyists from taking any job with an agency they had tried to influence in the past two years were removed under the new order.