Trump's search for a national security advisor sums up his biggest challenges so far

President Trump’s next national security advisor will serve as his eyes and ears to crises that pop up all over the globe — and be thrust into the center of the White House’s biggest firestorms too.

Amid the fallout over the firing of the first person to hold the post, Michael Flynn, the president has escalated his war with the media, questions have mounted about Trump associates’ ties to Russia, and his top pick to replace Flynn backed away, making it known he was concerned about how much autonomy he would have. 

Filling the job has emerged as a key early test of Trump and the dynamics within his White House, the subject of unprecedented scrutiny after a stormy first month.

Four candidates to replace Flynn trekked Sunday to Trump’s weekend White House, his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, for in-person interviews: former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, West Point Supt. Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, acting National Security Advisor Keith Kellogg and Army strategist Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.

Trump told reporters a day earlier on Air Force One that he had a leading candidate among them.

Others could be added to the list, officials said, and candidates could return for follow-up interviews Monday. One name that had been floated, former CIA director David H. Petraeus, was ruled out. 

“I have many, many that want the job,” Trump insisted as he promised a decision within days.

Trump maintained last week that his administration is functioning “smoothly” and like a “fine-tuned machine.” But the West Wing is battling incessant reports of internal strife at the highest levels, and questions about the outsize role being played by chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

He has been given a permanent seat on the National Security Council, which is the president’s principal forum for confronting national security and foreign policy issues and coordinating U.S. response among agencies.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he had concerns about the makeup of Trump’s National Security Council and whether it could be subject to political influence, and that others shared his view. 

Trump’s initial choice to replace Flynn, retired Navy Vice Adm. Bob Harward, turned him down, citing family and financial considerations. But news reports suggested that Harward, a onetime Navy SEAL and now a senior executive at Lockheed Martin, rejected the post because he feared insufficient control over key staffing decisions, including the right to choose his own deputy.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus insisted in an interview that aired Sunday that concerns over Bannon’s role did not play a part in Harward’s decision.

“The issue … never came up,” Priebus said.

Harward himself canceled a scheduled appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” just an hour before airtime, the network said.

Priebus said the new national security advisor “can do whatever that he or she wants to do with staffing.”

“The president has been very clear on that topic,” he insisted to Fox News’ Chris Wallace in a testy interview that also touched on the White House’s complaints about coverage of Trump’s troubled presidency.

But even as the White House insisted that any incoming official will have full authority to shape his own staff, aides appeared to acknowledge an exception. Craig Deare, the National Security Council director for Western Hemisphere affairs, was removed from his position after reports emerged of critical comments he made about Trump policies at a private discussion at a Washington think tank, a White House official confirmed.

Deare returned to his role at the National Defense University, from where he had been detailed to the National Security Council.

“If you don’t support the president’s agenda, you shouldn’t have a job in the White House,” Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Sunday.

Trump’s next national security advisor must have full authority to shape staffing, Thomas Donilon, a former national security advisor in the Obama administration, said on CBS’ “Face The Nation.” The council’s deliberations should not compete with “alternate and parallel processes” being run by others in the administration, he said, implying Bannon.

“The world is looking for President Trump's definitive views,” he said. “And there's a high degree of uncertainty and anxiety in the world. And the place where that happens is the National Security Council.”

Trump had asked for Flynn’s resignation after law enforcement officials informed the White House that he had misled senior officials and the public about conversations he’d had with the Russian ambassador over U.S. sanctions to punish Russia’s efforts to meddle in the presidential election. Calls have grown for a more far-reaching inquiry in Congress of Russian attempts to influence the U.S. government and potential contacts with Trump associates. 

Priebus flatly denied that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia during the election.

Priebus, who served as chairman of the Republican National Committee last year, had said he could not speak to any involvement with Russia by campaign staff. But asked on “Fox News Sunday” whether there was collusion “between anybody involved with Trump and anybody involved with Russia” during the campaign, he replied, “No.”

He was somewhat more equivocal in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” when asked about a New York Times article last week that alleged contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. U.S. intelligence assessments have said Russia interfered in the election with the aim of aiding Trump.

“We don’t know of any contacts with Russian agents,” Priebus said. The chief of staff also told NBC he was not aware of anyone else in the White House, other than Flynn, who was forced to resign last week, having been interviewed by the FBI about Russian contacts.

Priebus, in the Fox News interview, cited “top levels of the intelligence community” as having assured him that the account of the Trump campaign’s “constant contact with Russian spies” was incorrect, but he did not cite any official or agency, undercutting his own argument about journalists’ use of unnamed sources in their reports on Trump.

Priebus nonetheless said on CBS that reporters should take Trump seriously when he refers to the press as an “enemy” of the American people. 

“We spend, you know, 48 hours on bogus stories, and the American people suffer,” he said, calling on the media to “get its act together.” 

“We have done so many things that are noteworthy and an accomplishment one day after the next. The story line should not be about bogus Russian spy stories.”

Times staff writer Laura King in Washington contributed to this report.

michael.memoli@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememoli 

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