As the Commander-in-Chief, President Donald Trump is entitled to the National Security Council (NSC) he wants. NSC officials, like everyone else in the government, serve at the pleasure of the president – not the other way around.
And in case folks skipped civics class in high school, the president sets national security and foreign policy, not his staff. While it has provided advice to the president since its founding in 1947, the NSC staff doesn’t make major decisions on behalf of Americans. Or at least it’s not supposed to.
Presidents rely on that staff to sort out often competing visions from the State Department, Pentagon, intelligence community and other key stakeholders, yet each shapes the NSC to personal taste. Some were large and powerful like under Eisenhower and Obama, while others were less influential like under Kennedy, Johnson and Carter. Carter cut it in half at the outset of his term. Reagan downgraded the national security adviser post.
Trump inherited a historically outsized NSC, one which ballooned during the Obama years to the 400-staff range, doubling Bush and quadrupling Clinton, according to a 2015 Washington Post report. Obama’s NSC was also bossy and at times untruthful. Susan Rice told Americans that Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction” in justifying why he was exchanged for five top Taliban leaders at Guantanamo. Two former Secretaries of Defense, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, even wrote books complaining about the micromanagement.
As the 2016 Trump Campaign’s Director of National Security, I met with former senior officials in previous administrations to gauge their inputs on staffing and managing the NSC. My colleagues and I concluded it must be trimmed down for starters.
And that’s exactly what is happening now. Robert O’Brien, the White House national security adviser since Sept. 2019, is rightly streamlining the NSC.
Yet today’s media firestorm over the ouster of Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his twin brother Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman has sparked another round of dishonest reporting based on half-truths and false narratives. After years spent misleading Americans over the Trump-Russia hoax and ruthlessly defaming dozens of Trump associates, it’s no surprise.
The first fallacy over the Vindmans is that their dismissal was improper. Alex was slated to leave in July 2020 after all, note the journalists. On this, O’Brien correctly notes “it’s a privilege to work in the White House, it’s not a right.”
The second false narrative is that the Vindmans lost their jobs. Posts yes, but jobs no. Both have been returned to the Army where they will have follow on assignments.
The third falsehood is how the NSC works. Unlike a military unit, ship, squadron or battalion with a table of organization specifying billets and numbers of personnel assigned, the NSC is whatever the president wants it to be. And that varies over time.
More important than personnel numbers though, the president should have a NSC staff that he trusts.
Based on their testimonies during the impeachment hearings months ago, Vindman, his former NSC supervisor Fiona Hill and many others seemed untrustworthy and disloyal. Vindman falsely claimed that it was Obama who provided Javelin anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, when it was Trump. Hill falsely accused Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee of appearing to believe it was Ukraine which meddled in the 2016 elections, not Russia. Fortunately, they corrected her on the spot.
The so-called “whistleblower” was far worse. Reportedly an Obama-holdover detailed to NSC from the Intelligence Community who had worked with Vice President Biden, he consulted with House Intelligence Committee Democrats before his complaint about the Ukraine phone call between Presidents Trump and Zelensky became public. He wasn’t even on the call which sparked impeachment. And during the impeachment hearings, Vindman, who was on the call, refused to name the second person he told about it – an anonymous intelligence official. So who was it? While the Pentagon won’t likely investigate those details, the White House, DoJ and Congress have every right to.
Until then, the president ought to keep downsizing the NSC until he’s satisfied.
J.D. Gordon was a Senior National Security & Foreign Policy Advisor to Republicans Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee and Herman Cain. Previously, he served as a Pentagon spokesman during the George W. Bush Administration and is a retired Navy Commander.