January 31, 2017

CNAS Press Note: President Trump’s National Security Council

By Loren DeJonge Schulman

Following President Trump’s signing of National Security Presidential Memorandum-2, which lays out the shape of his NSC and national security decisionmaking, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Leon E. Panetta Senior Fellow Loren DeJonge Schulman has written a new Press Note, “President Trump’s National Security Council.”

The full Press Note is below:

On Saturday, January 28, President Trump signed National Security Presidential Memorandum-2 on the organization of the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council.  

The last several administrations have released some version of this memo detailing the people and process necessary for the president to make critical national security decisions.  While useful foundational documents, their text generally served less as a playbook and more as a guideline to senior national security officials and staff on who would typically be seated around the White House Situation Room table in both crisis and calm.  These memos were important bureaucratic signals, but the real life practice of interagency deliberation and formal and tacit assignment of roles in responsibilities for national security matters is just as important.

President Trump's version made several changes to its predecessor, two of which may have significant impact on the practice of national security at the White House.

First, the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs are no longer automatic invitees to the National Security Advisor–chaired Principals Committee, only to be included "where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed."  Though a change from the Obama administration, this language is similar to the organizing memo of the George W. Bush administration.  Both individuals have statutory roles as advisors to the National Security Council on intelligence and military matters, and both remain participants in National Security Council meetings (as do their respective deputies for the Deputies Committee).  It is hard to imagine a scenario in which the professional advice or at least awareness of the Chairman or the Director is not valuable to their fellow national security principals, and some in the administration have stressed that the revision was not meant to substantively change the role of either official.  The impact of this change, then, comes down to how National Security Advisor Flynn defines “pertaining to their responsibilities” and whom he includes at the table in practice.

Second, President Trump's Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, has been added as a regular participant in the National Security Council and Principals Committee.  This is unprecedented: prior administrations have drawn a bright line between the deliberations of national security professionals in the situation room and the president's domestic political agenda.  President George W. Bush made a point to tell Karl Rove he was not to attend NSC meetings.  President Obama had his domestic advisors attend on rare occasions, but as generally for their situational awareness, not as members actively weighing in on national security decisions.  Experts have raised questions about the danger of national security deliberations being swayed or stifled by political dynamics instead of driven by American national security interest.  

Other smaller changes are striking, such as the statement that Vice President Pence may preside over the National Security Council in the president’s absence.  Though a significant change from the Obama administration, this revision reflects language from the George W. Bush administration organizing memo.  Also noteworthy is the inclusion of the Executive Secretary in all National Security Council and Principals Committee meetings.  It may be beneficial to have a participant whose sole role is to coordinate the interagency and report conclusions and taskings back to agencies. But in reality, it's another person at an already crowded table.  

But none of this may matter if the National Security Council and the formal process described in NSPM-2 are not the central decision-making hub for national security matters. This weekend demonstrated that formal interagency deliberation is not always how the Trump White House developed and vetted its inaugural national security policies; for example, senior officials were surprised by the content and timing of the “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” Executive Order, and the typical legal and policy expert reviewers apparently did not get the chance to offer their views.  As the saying goes, the president gets the national security process he wants, and President Trump’s desires and assignment of roles and accountability will do more to set the tenor of a National Security Council than any memorandum.  DeJonge Schulman is available for interviews.  To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org or 202-457-9409.

  • Loren DeJonge Schulman

    Deputy Director of Studies

    Loren DeJonge Schulman is the Deputy Director of Studies and the Leon E. Panetta Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Her research interests include nation...