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Opinion | Col. Vindman and the Trumpification of the National Security Council


On Friday, the White House announced that it was transferring Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified during the House impeachment hearings, out of the National Security Council. The move is unsettling, petty and vindictive. But it’s not a surprise: The dismissal is just one part of a campaign by the national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, to trumpify one of the most powerful and important institutions in government.

Over the last six months, while impeachment dominated the news, Mr. O’Brien undertook the first restructuring of the council in a generation. He cut 60 to 70 positions, about a third of the staff, many of them career professionals. He also directed that the National Security Council focus less on transnational issues like global economics and nonproliferation, and more on bilateral and geographic priorities. In all, Mr. O’Brien’s trumpification of the staff will hamper the United States’ ability to meet the world’s challenges, and hamstring the next president.

The staff of the National Security Council has evolved since its creation in the National Security Act of 1947, which sought to connect the various departments and agencies that together drive the nation’s foreign policy. At first, the staff served merely as administrative clerks to the principals on the National Security Council — the president, secretaries of state and defense and other leaders. According to its first director, the staff coordinated and integrated the “ideas in crisscrossing proposals” from around government.

But over the years, various presidents have coopted the council’s staff, which grew both bigger and more influential, especially after 9/11 — to the point where it not only distributes a meeting’s agenda, but sets the government’s.

Congress mostly indulged the presidents a “personal band of warriors,” as George W. Bush called the staff, to fight their fights in Washington. And agencies like the Pentagon and C.I.A. lent the White House almost a battalion’s worth of diplomats, intelligence analysts and career military officers like Colonel Vindman.

Mr. Trump inherited from President Barack Obama the most powerful National Security Council in history. But the new president struggled to win over the hundreds of staff members who’d fought for the sorts of globalist policies — like trade deals and alliances — he had long opposed. Mr. Trump certainly tried to conquer the staff, naming a loyalist retired lieutenant general, Michael Flynn, as his first national security adviser and his nationalist adviser Steve Bannon to a high-level committee within it. The message was, as a Trump hire told one member of the staff, “The president doesn’t care about the things you care about, and the sooner that you know about it, the better.”

The public outcry over the resulting turmoil at the council — even the Hollywood celebrities Sarah Silverman and Judd Apatow tweeted their concerns — forced Mr. Trump to back down and bounce Mr. Flynn and Mr. Bannon (Mr. Flynn’s legal troubles helped ease his way out). But the fight continued in the council’s cipher-locked offices and classified memos. Mr. Trump’s loyalists on the staff attempted to spy on, scapegoat and smear their nonpolitical colleagues. Within a year of the inauguration, Mr. Trump was tweeting about a “deep state” working against him.

The dysfunction at the council, which Mr. Flynn’s successors H.R. McMaster and John Bolton failed to end, helped break the government. Congress’s impeachment hearings revealed the depth of the crisis: Mr. Trump used the staff and others to help shake Ukraine down for dirt on a political rival, while Colonel Vindman, the staff’s Ukraine point person, and the rest of the council pursued a different policy altogether. Far from becoming Mr. Trump’s warriors, staff members like Colonel Vindman became witnesses against the president, exposing the sordid breakdown to Congress.

As the Ukraine inquiry and impeachment distracted everyone, Mr. Bolton’s replacement, Mr. O’Brien, decided to launch his own operation to transform the National Security Council after less than a month as its leader. He explained his aggressive job cuts were meant to reaffirm the staff’s traditional “mission to coordinate,” but that never added up. The cuts’ size and speed are instead deeply destabilizing to Washington. The timing and targets also smack of ulterior motives: A smaller staff mean fewer potential witnesses and fewer questions about Mr. Trump’s priorities.

More than simply ridding the staff of resistance to the president, Mr. O’Brien’s has locked Trumpism into the government’s bureaucratic hub. His restructuring prioritizes geographic policy (like, ironically, Ukraine policy) while cutting or combining teams in functional and transnational issues such as international economics, nonproliferation and global health. The council is now tailor made for a president who sees foreign policy in transactional, bilateral terms, as either decisions to make alone or deals to be cut with another head of state.

But a Trumpian National Security Council is a terrible fit for today’s world. The coronavirus emerging from China is just the latest proof of how rarely global events cooperate with presidential preference, and how often they spread across continents and policy disciplines. Mr. Trump may not believe the whole world is interconnected or that it requires whole-of-government policymaking, but that does not make it so. Nor does it mean he can combat a potential pandemic armed only with talking points for a phone call with China’s president. Challenges like coronavirus demand the sort of dot connecting that had once been the m├ętier of the National Security Council, and is now lost in Washington.

At great risk to the country, Mr. Trump and Mr. O’Brien are finally winning the war at the council. But it’s the next president’s loss, and thus all of ours. Whoever replaces Mr. Trump will inherit a weaker and less worldly National Security Council, and learn the hard way it’s far easier to deconstruct a staff than rebuild one. As a result, even after Mr. Trump leaves the White House, Trumpism will continue to corrupt American foreign policy.

John Gans (@johngansjr), the director of communications and research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, is the author of “White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War.”

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