As things stand, Donald Trump does not currently have a White House national security adviser, which is an incredibly important and influential job. The NSA – or technically, the assistant to the president for national security affairs (APNSA) – is responsible for coordinating the White House policy process on matters related to national security and international affairs. The person in the job has a considerable reach, involving the White House National Security Council and a variety of departments and agencies across the executive branch.
Trump has gone through three national security advisers in 32 months. One of them, Michael Flynn, is now a convicted felon awaiting sentencing.
The president said on Wednesday he had five leading contenders to replace John Bolton at the post. He upped that number yesterday, telling reporters during a brief Q&A there are now 15 people on his list.
“A lot of people want the job. And we – it’s a great job. It’s great because it’s a lot of fun to work with Donald Trump. And it’s very easy, actually, to work with me. You know why it’s easy? Because I make all the decisions. They don’t have to work.”
This struck me as a surprisingly interesting comment, which is worth unpacking a bit.
First, when Trump said “a lot of people” want to serve as the next national security adviser, that’s almost certainly not true. He used nearly identical language after firing Defense Secretary James Mattis, and that was because the White House was struggling to find a new Pentagon chief at the time. He felt the need to lie to obscure the embarrassment.
It’s far easier to believe that real candidates for the job don’t want it because they’ve seen what’s happened to those who’ve held the job under Trump. As Eliot Cohen, a veteran of the Bush/Cheney administration, said this week, no matter who replaces Bolton, “it’s not going to be an important position anymore – there really isn’t going to be much of a process under Trump.”
Second, the fact that Trump described the White House national security adviser as basically a do-nothing gig in which someone simply watches the president make decisions says a great deal about how things work – or fail to work – in the current West Wing.
It’s such a strange thing for him to brag about. The president who doesn’t read intelligence briefings and ignores national security experts seems oddly proud of the idea that his national security advisers “don’t have to work.” Not to put too fine a point on this, but shouldn’t they have to work?
The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser raised an important point along these lines this week: “Bolton’s exit serves as a reminder that the intensive national-security decision-making process of previous presidents, Republican and Democrat alike, has been abandoned by Trump, subverted to the presidential ego, and will not return for the duration of his tenure.”
Or put another way, the president’s NSA is responsible for coordinating the White House policy process on matters related to national security and international affairs, and Trump doesn’t much care because he doesn’t recognize the value of even having such a policy process. Indeed, yesterday the president was joking about his indifference toward the position.
Finally, the idea that people find it “fun” and “easy” to work for Trump is belied by all kinds of evidence. The Washington Post had a striking report this week on the president’s “sometimes Kafkaesque management style.”
Trump’s desires for his advisers range from the trivial – someone who looks the part – to the traditional – someone willing to vigorously support him and defend his policies in media appearances. But these demands can be grating and at times terminal for members of his staff — especially for those who, like the national security adviser, may find themselves at odds with the president on critical issues.
“There is no person that is part of the daily Trump decision-making process that can survive long term,” said a former senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “The president doesn’t like people to get good press. He doesn’t like people to get bad press. Yet he expects everyone to be relevant and important and supportive at all times. Even if a person could do all those things, the president would grow tired of anyone in his immediate orbit.”
Nothing about this sounds “fun” or “easy.”