Garbage in, garbage out is a truism in the world of computing, and now, thanks to Donald Trump, it seems that it’s the operative method of America’s National Security Council.
According to a devastating report in The New York Times, during meetings with top National Security Council officials at the White House, Trump’s national security advisor, Robert C. O’Brien, begins not by examining the latest reports from intelligence agencies about difficult situations around the world that may impact our nation’s safety, but by “distributing printouts of Mr. Trump’s latest tweets on the subject at hand.”
In a dramatic shift in the very nature of the National Security Council, in the Trump administration, the job of top officials who are members of the Council has changed from advising the president on policy decisions to finding “ways of justifying, enacting or explaining Mr. Trump’s policy,” according to the newspaper.
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The Times contrasts the performance and styles of O’Brien — whom it describes as ” a dapper Los Angeles lawyer” — with his predecessors in the position of top national security advisor, John Bolton and General H.R. McMaster, by explaining that the two earlier officials “had strong policy views informed by deep military or diplomatic experience that differed from Mr. Trump’s in basic ways, and each sought to steer his policies.”
O’Brien, relatively inexperienced in national security matters compared to his antecedents, sees his mission as being a Trump “loyalist who enables his ideas instead of challenging them.”
With the departure of other experienced hands in the administration such as former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, former Chief of Staff John Kelly, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and former Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, and their replacements “by relatively little known loyalists anxious to carry out Mr. Trump’s will and eager to embrace his zeal in rooting out members of the so-called deep state involved in his impeachment or seen as dissidents,” Trump is now essentially unimpeded by “the adults in the room” as he blindly stumbles forward with our national security now overseen by people acting more obsequiously than analytically.
The trend towards the staffing of senior White House advisors with “yes men” unwilling to challenge Trump’s politically motivated and poorly reasoned strategies was only accelerated by the appointment this week of Richard Grenell, a prominent Trump supporter who previously served as ambassador to Germany and has no intelligence background, as acting Director of National Intelligence.
In addition to changing the very purpose of the National Security Council, O’Brien at Trump’s direction is overseeing a drastic reduction in its size, “chopping the council’s staff from 174 policy positions in October to fewer than 115,” according to The Times, a far cry from the 236 policy staff members during the Obama era. Among the victims of the downsizing was the firing of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a move widely seen as Trump’s political retribution against one of the star witnesses in his impeachment hearings.
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, sees the president’s actions as creating “the clear impression that this is about retribution, not reform,” but is sanguine about the effect any restructuring of the council will have on a president who already rejects any advice he doesn’t already agree with.
“It’s not terribly clear what the N.S.C. has been doing for the last three years,” Senator Murphy said. “The N.S.C.’s function now seems to be war-gaming for potential presidential tweets instead of developing policy recommendations for presidential decision-making.”
John Gans, a former Pentagon official and the author of a book on the National Security Council told The New York Times that:
“The national security adviser should have the strongest staff possible, but it seems like Robert O’Brien is focused more on that audience of one — and making sure that Donald Trump is happy.”
Unfortunately, keeping Donald Trump happy seems to mean doing things that would make Vladimir Putin happy at least when it comes to America’s weakened national security stance. The scary thing is that Trump now has a team in place that won’t stand in his way.
All the more reason to ensure his departure from the White House as soon as possible.
Original reporting by Michael Crowley and at The New York Times.