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Turning the purpose of White House's national security team on its head

The National Security Council that's supposed to be steering Donald Trump is instead being steered.


Last fall, after Donald Trump had gone through three White House national security advisers in 32 months, the president told reporters that a great many people were clamoring for the position.

"It's a great job," the president said. "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."

Even for Trump, it was a deeply strange comment. As we discussed at the time, the national security adviser -- 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. But as far as Trump is concerned, the person can just sit back and do nothing, while the president who doesn't read intelligence briefings and ignores national security experts does the heavy lifting.

The New Yorker's Susan Glasser raised an important point along these lines in September: "[John] 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."

Six months later, the evidence to bolster the point is overwhelming. The New York Times reported over the weekend:

When President Trump's national security adviser, Robert C. O'Brien, convenes meetings with top National Security Council officials at the White House, he sometimes opens by distributing printouts of Mr. Trump's latest tweets on the subject at hand. The gesture amounts to an implicit challenge for those present. Their job is to find ways of justifying, enacting or explaining Mr. Trump's policy, not to advise the president on what it should be.

For the better part of the last century, the White House National Security Council existed to offer presidents advice and information. In the Trump era, the model has been flipped: Robert O'Brien tells NSC members what the president already believes and directs them to offer support for the decisions on which Trump has already settled.

Under any administration, this would be a recipe for disastrous policymaking, but it's worth pausing from time to time to appreciate why this is a uniquely dangerous governing dynamic right now: Donald Trump doesn't know anything about national security policy. We are, after all, talking about the nation's first amateur president, who, in the recent past, was a television personality and notorious conspiracy theorist.

His poorly written tweets about global affairs are based on television segments he struggles to understand, hunches, and private chats with foreign leaders. And yet, they're distributed at NSC meetings as directives.

The National Security Council that's supposed to be steering him is instead being steered.

It's against this backdrop that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is also experiencing a Trumpian overhaul. Garrett Graff wrote for Wired last week that "almost all of the roles created after 9/11 literally to prevent the next 9/11 will be either vacant or lack permanent appointees."

While vacancies and acting officials have become commonplace in this administration, the moves by President Donald Trump this week represent a troubling and potentially profound new danger to the country. There will soon be no Senate-confirmed director of the National Counterterrorism Center, director of national intelligence, principal deputy director of national intelligence, homeland security secretary, deputy homeland security secretary, nor leaders of any of the three main border security and immigration agencies. Across the government, nearly 100,000 federal law enforcement agents, officers, and personnel are working today without permanent agency leaders, from Customs and Border Protection and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

For those who have the utmost confidence in Trump, his sycophantic loyalists, and their competence on national security matters, none of this is cause for concern. On the contrary, it's cause for celebration.

But for everyone else, the developments are more than a little unsettling.