Crippling the capacity of the National Security Council

Staff gather as outgoing National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster walks out of the White House during his last day on the job in Washington, D.C., U.S. April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The Trump administration’s first three years saw record-setting turnover at the most senior level of the White House staff and the Cabinet. There are also numerous vacancies in Senate-confirmed positions across the executive branch. As of September 22, 2019, the turnover rate among senior White House aides had reached 80 percent, a rate that exceeded President Trump’s five predecessors after their entire first terms in office. The frequent departure of senior staff has been one of the most noteworthy features of this administration.

My previous analysis examined the first instance of turnover on the president’s “A Team,” and includes 65 individuals in key White House offices e.g., Legislative Affairs, White House Counsel, as well as the Office of Management and Budget, the National Security Council (NSC) and smaller entities. Senior level departures were so frequent that I created a table that documents serial turnover (repeat instances of turnover in particular offices). As of January 2020, over 1/3 of the offices experiencing turnover had more than two occupants—in some cases, as many as six. The most upheaval has occurred in the NSC, a highly influential office that provides the president with advice on national security and foreign policy issues and coordinates these policies with other key departments and agencies, including State, Defense, Homeland Security and the CIA.

Within my “A Team” sample, I tracked eight senior NSC positions. By fall of 2019, seven of those eight positions had turned over at least once. The instability in the NSC began in the first month of the administration with the departure of three high level officials: National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn; Senior Director for Africa, Robin Townley; and Chief of Staff, Keith Kellogg (who changed jobs to become Acting National Security Adviser and eventually became Vice President Pence’s National Security Adviser). By August of 2017, Deputy National Security Adviser, KT McFarland and Senior Intelligence Director Ezra Cohen Watnick had departed—a total of five NSC staff changes within the first seven months of the administration.

The high-level departures continued through 2018 and 2019 with more senior members of the NSC departing and serial turnover across many of these positions: four National Security Advisoes, six Deputy National Security Advisers, three Chiefs of Staff and Executive Secretaries, three senior Intelligence Directors, three Senior Directors for Europe and Russia, three Senior Directors for Africa and three Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism advisers. (The position of Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism was folded into the NSC during John Bolton’s tenure and is included in this study.) This turnover rate is simply off the charts—no prior president comes close to this level of NSC instability. In stark contrast, both Presidents Bush and President Clinton had single National Security Advisers throughout the first term; President Obama had two and President Reagan had three. Similarly, while the sixth Deputy National Security Adviser is serving for President Trump, Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush had one during the first term, Presidents Obama and George H.W. Bush had two and President Reagan had three.

Turnover Across Key Senior NSC Positions
January 2017- January 2020

Position Occupant 1 Occupant 2 Occupant 3 Occupant 4 Occupant 5 Occupant 6
Nat’l Sec. Adviser Flynn McMaster Bolton O’Brien
Deputy NSA McFarland Powell/Waddell* Schadlow Ricardel Kupperman Pottinger
Homeland/Counter Bossert Fears Brown
Chief of Staff Kellogg Fleitz O’Hara
Dir. of Intelligence Watnick Barry Unknown
Dir. Europe/Russia Hill Morrison Peek    ?**
Dir. Africa Townley Sartor Walsh
Dir. Asia Pottinger Unknown

* When H.R. McMaster became National Security Adviser in the spring of 2017, he appointed two Deputy National Security Advisers. Based on news accounts at the time, it was difficult to determine which of the two was more senior, so I have included both. Note also that these NSC positions are merely a subset of senior positions rather than a listing of all senior NSC positions. These positions come from a larger sample of Trump’s “A Team”. See January report by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas for a description of methodology.

** On Friday, January 17, 2020, Andrew Peek was escorted from the White House grounds pending a security-related investigation. It may be that the NSC will soon be in search of a third Director of Europe and Russia in a single year and the fourth occupant overall.

This extraordinary rate of high-level turnover concomitantly causes a cascade of departures in less senior jobs, as incoming successors seek to staff their office with hand-picked associates. Put differently, the departure of a single National Security Adviser results in additional NSC departures—adding to the disarray, inhibiting performance, raising the anxiety levels, and decreasing the level of expertise (among other dysfunctions). In some instances, a new National Security Adviser will not only bring new staff into the office, but restructure the office in significant ways that add further disruption.

In addition to the unusually high levels of staff turnover, President Trump instructed his fourth National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, to make major staff cuts at the NSC in the fall of 2019. Within three months, roughly 40-45 NSC staff members (who were serving as detailees) moved back to their home agencies, representing about a 13 percent cut in size. News reports indicated that O’Brien has plans to cut the NSC by a total of one third (requiring an additional 20 percent cut). While reducing the size of a bloated NSC is a worthy goal, doing so late in the first term, without an apparent strategy and in an office that has had multiple leadership changes could very well undermine further the president’s ability to conduct the business of national security.

The combination of high turnover, major staff cuts, and new leadership have truly crippled the role of the NSC. Just the past five months have witnessed the significant role of senior NSC staff in the Ukrainian aid scandal and subsequent impeachment process. In addition, the recent killing of Iranian General Qasim Soleimani and bungled explanation have drawn even more attention to the role of the NSC. The inability to coordinate a consistent message, let alone a single message, for why the U.S. ordered the death demonstrates the absence of staff influential enough to have prepared for the aftermath of such a momentous and consequential action. Working at such a disadvantage alongside an impulsive president who consistently shows disdain for expertise, collaboration and debate poses a risk to the country at large.