Trump Builds NSC of Yes-Men
Donald Trump is filling his Nation Security Council with those who want to target Iran as the main military priority
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
In another executive order, President Trump has asked Steve Bannon to be — what he’s calling at least — a permanent member of the National Security Council, and saying the Head of the Department of National Intelligence and the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, did not have to be at all the meetings of the National Security Council, that that will be optional. Well, how significant is all of this? Is it just a process issue, as Trump, and his public relations spokesperson Spicer, is saying or is there something more going on here?
And now joining us to talk about this is Larry Wilkerson. Larry joins us from Williamsburg, Virginia. He’s the Former Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s currently an Adjunct Professor of Government at the College of William & Mary and a regular contributor to The Real News. Thanks very much for joining us, Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul.
PAUL JAY: So, before we get into the intrigue and ins and outs of all this, let’s just get clear on what the National Security Council is supposed to do, how it got created, who goes to the meetings and then let’s see how big a deal is it that Steve Bannon is in and Joseph Dunford, particularly, a Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, is now optional? So start with that.
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, the National Security Council was created by the 1947 National Security Act to essentially coordinate policy development and execution across those elements, principally the Department of Defense and State, that are concerned with national security. That’s its mission.
PAUL JAY: And what has been the relationship of Dunford and the Head of the DNI to that? If I understand it correctly they are, by law, advisors to the NSC.
LARRY WILKERSON: Yes. They’re statutory advisors and it is essential if you want good decision-making, the founders of the Act thought, that your central intelligence person, in this case now the DNI, and your central military person from the Pentagon, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff alone now — used to be the entire Joint Chiefs Committee, it’s now just the chairman – be in on that decision-making. Inform and advise that decision making. That was the intent of the 1947 Act.
PAUL JAY: And normally the DNI head and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs would normally be regular, if not by statute, at least by practice, permanent members of the NSC?
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, they are by statute advisors to it and, therefore, more or less should be seen as permanent attendees. The only members in the strictest sense are the President, Vice President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Energy.
PAUL JAY: And how unusual is it to have a political advisor, a “chief strategist” at these meetings? My understanding is Karl Rove wasn’t at these meetings under the Bush administration.
LARRY WILKERSON: Unprecedented move. No question that politics often intervenes in national security matters and is discussed. But to have a person so blatantly representative of the political scene in National Security Council meetings on a regular basis, is unprecedented and, frankly, quite stupid.
PAUL JAY: Now, I heard Spicer, the press secretary, in his press conference said that David Axelrod, who played a somewhat similar role as Bannon plays to Obama, was in and out of these meetings. Does that sound true? In this case, why is it such a big deal that Bannon is now “being called a permanent member” even though, by statute, if I understand what you’re saying, he can’t be a statutory permanent member, but I suppose Trump can just say, “Come to every meeting,” and that makes him one.
LARRY WILKERSON: Any National Security Council, if you’re going to call it that, is statutorily composed. But, at the same time, you can use the word very loosely — most presidents have, as a matter of fact, since World War II — and you can call it whatever you want, The National Security Council. Or you can call it the Executive Committee as John F. Kennedy did, or the Tuesday Luncheon, as Lyndon Baines Johnson did — and restrict or increase its membership, as it were, as you wish.
So it’s strictly to the president’s own wishes how he makes decisions. If he wants to meet them in a boat on the Potomac with a bottle of Jack Daniels, with his buddies by his side, playing poker, that’s fine with the president. If he wants to meet them in a full, formal NSC meeting, like Eisenhower used to do, that’s fine with the president — with that president.
So we’re really talking about presidential prerogative here and the president can do whatever he wants to do and Congress be damned. And that seems to be a modus operandi of this particular president. Let me add, I think it’s an extremely dangerous precedent to be setting. I think it foreshadows some real disorganization in foreign and security policy. And I think it foreshadows even more politicization of that foreign and security policy than we’ve had already. And we’ve seen what that’s done, particularly in the George W. Bush administration, and to a certain extent in the Obama administration.
PAUL JAY: Now let me make sure I have this part correct. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is selected by the president; it’s confirmed by Senate. It’s a real appointment. He is, in fact, the senior highest ranking military officer, but his job is advisory, but that being said, he has a two-year term and he’s not appointed by Trump, he’s appointed by Obama and still has six or seven months left in his term. So here’s somebody who is not part of the Trump team, Trump doesn’t apparently want him at every meeting, and they’ve had some public disagreements, apparently according to press reports. Dunford considers Russia the number one threat to the United States and Trump, apparently, does not. So there seems to be some real disagreements geopolitically.
Also Dunford severely critiqued Flynn, who is now the National Security Advisor and was head of all this during the transition team, critiqued Flynn’s speech at the Republican convention saying that retired generals shouldn’t be so publicly involved in the partisan political process. So do we think something more than just efficiency is going on here by making Dunford, “optional” at the NSC meetings?
LARRY WILKERSON: I would say yes. And I would say that probably General Dunford will not be asked to serve a second term, and, therefore, will not go back before the Congress for reconfirmation, as did, for example, my boss, Colin Powell, serving a total of four years in office. He will probably be either removed before the seven months are up, at the president’s discretion, a new person appointed and have to be confirmed by the Congress, or he will be allowed to serve out the few months remaining in his first term and then not be reappointed and reconfirmed. That’s my guess anyway.
And, again, I think this beginning of a battle between the generals and admirals and the President of the United States and his selection of only those who agree with him is another very dangerous move.
PAUL JAY: Now, we’ve talked about this before, but when you read the speeches of people like Flynn and Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, certainly Trump — of course, most importantly, I think, probably Vice President Pence, who’s kind of keeping his head down right at the moment, but to all accounts is a serious power within the White House — while they talk about crushing ISIS as the main priority, when you read the way they write about the world, they really see Iran as the main priority.
There’s been some differences in the past — my understanding is Cheney/Bush were more than willing and interested in trying to have some kind of attack on Iran during their administration and many members of the Pentagon were opposed to it — in fact, many publicly. There were op-eds, speaking of generals, coming out into the public discourse; I suppose more over a policy position than straight partisan politics. But a lot of the Pentagon and retired Pentagon came out against the Bush/Cheney administration as they seemed to be inching towards an attack on Iran.
Do we think something of that is going on here? That the people around Trump are very committed to, first of all, very close to Israel, very close to Netanyahu, very close to the Saudis, who are not on that airport ban list, and have at the center of their target Iran. And perhaps the joint chiefs and Dunford are not on the same page on that.
LARRY WILKERSON: Could very possibly be. You might recall that famously reported, at least, NSC meeting where President Bush actually, in his second term, goes around the room and asks all of those who were in favor of a war with Iran or with bombing Iran, to raise their hands. And there’s only one hand in the room, it’s Dick Cheney’s. And that settles the issue for the Bush administration’s second term.
Are we back to a point where sitting in the room are not only all Cheney’s but very zealous Cheney’s? I don’t know. But I would suspect that some of his crafting of the council to look more like what Trump wants or someone behind him doing this — I have great problems believing Trump has the expertise, the experience or the intelligence to do this kind of designing of his decision-making apparatus this early on. So it’s probably someone in the background who’s doing this, perhaps even Bannon. And so, it’s even more dangerous in that regard. We are preparing ourselves to make decisions not based on interest, not based on what’s best for the nation, not based on what we might be able to accomplish, but what this team of fools, cowards and idiots wants.
PAUL JAY: All right, thanks very much for joining us, Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul.
PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.