As havoc unfolded over the weekend following President Trump’s temporary ban on refugees coming into the country, some longtime Washington hands were alarmed by something else: the revamping of the National Security Council, the group of Cabinet-level officials and others who deliberate on the country’s most pressing — and often secret — national security issues.
Trump named one of his senior political counselors, Stephen K. Bannon, to a seat on the council’s principals committee. The president also limited the attendance of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence to an as-needed basis at the panel’s meetings.
“Stone-cold crazy,” tweeted Susan Rice, former President Obama’s national security advisor, sarcastically asking, “Who needs military advice or intell to make policy on ISIL, Syria, Afghanistan, DPRK?” using acronyms for Islamic State and North Korea.
Another top Trump aide, Stephen Miller, effectively ran the National Security Council principals meeting Saturday, according to two Trump administration officials, a highly unusual move. Miller was a major architect of the refugee and visa ban.
The guiding hands of Bannon and Miller — "my two Steves," as Trump has affectionately called them — who are only occasionally heard from publicly but almost constantly seen alongside Trump, were evident in much of the developments at the White House in Trump’s first week.
Bannon, the former head of the far-right website Breitbart News, once said his goal was to “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Trump made clear through a series of acts in his first week that he intends to upend government policy, not only on reassessing the refugee program but directives to build a wall along the border with Mexico and changes on environmental, healthcare and other issues.
Miller, who developed detailed knowledge of the nation's immigration laws while working on the staff of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s nominee to be attorney general, spent much of Saturday making policy decisions based on a strict interpretation of the immigration order and instructing senior Homeland Security officials on how to implement the plan.
Trump’s orders for stopping travelers from seven countries, blocking Syrian refugees and banning all refugee admissions for 120 days were pushed through at breakneck pace instead of what is usually a careful process of review by the departments of Justice and Homeland Security and the intelligence agencies for major changes to immigration policy. Instead, Homeland Security officials were given little time to review the order before it was made public.
On one of the order’s most controversial and confusing parts, the status of permanent residents, Bannon and Miller at one point overruled an interpretation by Homeland Security officials in favor of a more limited policy that blocked green card holders until they apply for a waiver from the ban, the officials said.
After a weekend of conflicting instructions to border officials at airports, the administration said late Sunday that green card holders would not be affected by Trump’s order. About 170 permanent residents from the banned countries had applied for waivers to enter by Sunday afternoon, and all had been granted, a senior administration official said.
After chaotic scenes at airport terminals across the country and multiple court orders limiting Trump’s directives, the White House defended the rollout of the policy. The implementation was done “seamlessly” and with “extraordinary professionalism,” a senior administration official told reporters Sunday, adding that the court orders had not undermined the policy’s “substance” or “purpose.”
Trump’s top spokesman, Sean Spicer, also defended Trump’s decision to expand Bannon’s reach, telling ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday that Trump is simply trying to “streamline” decision-making and cut bureaucracy.
“He's got a tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape that we have now,” Spicer said of Bannon, noting that he is a former naval officer and adding that it’s only right for the president’s top strategist to “come in and talk about what the strategy is going forward.”
Bannon’s and Miller’s increasing power potentially portends a new era of political calculus being applied to decisions on how to deploy American spies and soldiers overseas. Former President George W. Bush kept his powerful strategist Karl Rove out of the Situation Room, where National Security Council meetings are usually held, Joshua Bolten, a White House chief of staff under Bush, said at a conference in September at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas.
“The signal he wanted to send to the rest of his administration, the signal he wanted to send to the public, and the signal he especially wanted to send to the military is that the decisions I'm making that involve life and death for the people in uniform will not be tainted by any political decisions,” Bolten said of Bush.
The point was echoed by David Rothkopf, the CEO of Foreign Policy magazine’s parent company and an international relations expert.
“The idea that a purely political advisor should be at the table while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence are not shows a profound lack of understanding of what the NSC has been — or what it should be,” he wrote.
Robert Gates, Defense secretary under both Bush and Obama, said that while he was not bothered by the addition of Bannon to the National Security Council, he was troubled by the removal of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence, except when their issues are being discussed, calling the move a “big mistake.”
“They both bring a perspective and judgment and experience to bear that every president, whether they like it or not, finds useful,” Gates said on “This Week.”
National security experts and even some Republican lawmakers believe that Trump’s executive orders, which don’t target citizens who have been involved in attacks against the U.S., are more likely to inflame resentment against the U.S. than to make the country more secure.
The confusion over who was allowed in and who was sent back out of the country made clear the executive order “was not properly vetted,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement, adding that they feared retaliation from extremists.
The large majority of terrorism-related arrests on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11 attacks have been U.S. citizens or legal residents, not foreign travelers, according to a study by the New America Foundation that was released last year.
“Far from being foreign infiltrators, the large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents,” the study’s authors wrote. “In addition, about a quarter of the extremists are converts, further confirming that the challenge cannot be reduced to one of immigration.”
Times staff writer Christi Parsons contributed to this report.