White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has been removed from an important seat on the National Security Council — a posting that had stirred controversy for placing one of President Donald Trump’s top political hands in a key national security position.
The change represents the first real diminution of authority for Bannon, who has been cast as an all-powerful whisperer to Trump in the administration’s first 75 days, mocked by his critics as “President Bannon.”
In recent weeks, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has asked searching questions — sometimes for hours — of inside and outside advisers about the White House’s performance and complained about Bannon in particular, according to people who have spoken with Kushner. Kushner, a onetime New York Democrat, and Bannon, a hard-right nationalist, have clashed as Kushner has told people that Bannon’s desire to deconstruct the government is hurting the president.
One person familiar with Kushner’s thinking says Kushner believes Bannon is more of a problem than Reince Priebus, the chief of staff.
“Big fight is between nationalists and the ‘West Wing Democrats,’” one senior administration official said.
The White House tried to downplay the significance of Bannon’s removal from the NSC — it went unannounced by the press office — depicting him as simply moving on after successfully completing limited tasks.
“It’s not like this is a major shake-up,” said another administration official.
But Bannon’s exit, revealed in a federal register filing and confirmed by multiple White House officials, is perceived to represent a significant long-term increase in authority for H.R. McMaster, Trump’s new national security adviser, who now has greater authority over the council’s agenda without one of Trump’s closest aides watching closely over him.
“McMaster won,” one NSC official said.
Vice President Mike Pence said Bannon’s ouster was not a “demotion” and said it was a “very routine” change.
“With H.R Mcaster as our national security adviser and the president’s action adding the chairman of the joint chiefs, adding the director of national intelligence, and moving a couple of our senior personnel off the national security council just simply represents a very routine evolution of the national security team around the president,” Pence said in an interview with Fox News Wednesday night.
Pence added that both Bannon and Tom Bossert, who serves as Trump’s homeland security adviser and whose role was also reduced, continued to be “highly valued members of this administration.”
One White House official said Bannon was placed on the NSC to “babysit” Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who resigned in mid-February after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
This official said Bannon’s role was also to ensure that the NSC was “de-operationalized” following the Obama administration. “That job is done,” the official said.
“It’s not like he’s been in principal committee meetings constantly saying [to McMaster], ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that,’” another of the officials said. “That hasn’t happened.”
Bannon had not been a regular attendee of NSC principals meetings. One person said he attended one meeting; another said he hadn’t attended any.
Some cautioned not to make too much of Bannon’s removal. “I get a sense that people are going, ‘Ding-dong, the witch is dead,’” said Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration. “The only thing he doesn’t appear to have is a seat at the NSC principals committee, and it’s not clear how important that will be.”
The immediate reading by several longtime NSC officials and experts was that the policy-making body is reverting to a much more traditional structure — with the national security adviser in the driver’s seat and meetings attended by Cabinet heads, top intelligence officials and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who in the Flynn approach was not even designated a regular member, even as Bannon was.
“It really reflects well on H.R. McMaster, who has orchestrated all the key moves behind the scenes in advance of announcing them and gotten their approval,” David Rothkopf, author of two histories of the NSC, said in an interview. “That is a sign of a smart, effective bureaucrat and leader. This restores the traditional structures to the NSC. It is putting in place a professional team of national security advisers. It gives McMaster more authority and restores the roles of the military and intelligence leadership.”
Lawmakers of both parties welcomed the return to a more traditional NSC structure.
“I’d be very pleased that he would not be on the National Security Council,” Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Capitol Hill. “My hope is that he would have no role in government at all and would be completely out.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said downgrading Bannon was a “good move” — and he praised the reinstatement of the Joint Chiefs chairman as a permanent member of the security council.
“The chairman of the Joint Chiefs should be in a permanent position, so I think it’s the right thing to do, but it’s a decision of the president’s,” McCain said. “I said at the time that I didn’t think a political adviser should be a member of that body because it’s never been, so I think it’s the right thing to do.”
And Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted, “Steve Bannon’s removal from National Security Council is welcome news.”
The removal of Bannon also raised questions of whether more changes are in the works, in particular the fate of K.T. McFarland, who was brought in as Flynn’s deputy and remains the No. 2 at the NSC.
“Trump loves [McFarland], so I’m not sure McMaster can fire her,” an NSC official said.
One NSC source said no additional staffing changes are planned to the agency in the near term, saying that NSC intelligence director Ezra Cohen-Watnick would remain in that post. McMaster had tried to re-assign Cohen-Watnick to a different position last month but was overruled by Trump after Bannon and Kushner intervened.
Cohen-Watnick subsequently became a key player in the controversy over leaked intelligence when it was revealed that he and another White House aide provided House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) with evidence reportedly showing that communications from Trump’s team were intercepted in foreign surveillance by U.S. intelligence.
In addition to Bannon, one other change was made Wednesday. Thomas Bossert, an assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, held co-equal status with Flynn when he was national security adviser. He is now subordinate to McMaster, in another sign of the former general’s empowered role in the Trump White House.
The changes were not welcomed among some Trump loyalists.
Flynn’s son, Michael Flynn Jr., tweeted that “Flynn/Bannon most loyal to DJT (both out at NSC),” using the president’s initials, and he complained that McMaster “wont say ‘Radical Islam.’”
“Is WH serious abt defeating our enemy?” Flynn Jr. wrote.
Eliana Johnson, Kenneth P. Vogel, Austin Wright, Louis Nelson and Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.
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