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Juliette Kayyem: Trump's problematic "team of rivals" stems from Flynn's failure to lead national security transition

Kayyem: Cabinet may well already be at war with the national security team -- mainly Flynn

Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-selling “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.” She is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. On the latest episode of her national security podcast (The SCIF), Kayyem explains what President Trump’s cabinet picks say about his security policy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

As President Donald J. Trump’s national security team falls into place, there has been much focus on the substance of what some are calling a “Trump Doctrine” that emerged during his inaugural speech: America First. The phrase itself is controversial, evoking memories of WWII’s America First Committee and its anti-Semitic founders, and as specific policy it is vague.

But now that Trump is governing, slogans need to be implemented. And a dynamic is playing out within his Cabinet (and Cabinet-in-waiting) that is worthy of attention.

The confirmation hearings of Trump’s three confirmed Cabinet members – Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and CIA Director Mike Pompeo – as well as his nominees for Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson) and even US Ambassador to the UN (Nikki Haley) were largely uncontroversial except in one important regard: They all expressed fundamental disagreement with basic tenets of Trump’s campaign and foreign policy strategy.

Whether it was approaches to Russia, a border wall, climate change, NATO or torture, the nominees seemed to care little about how at odds their opinion was to those of the White House strategists. This suggests the cabinet may well already be at war with the national security team – mainly National Security Advisor Michael Flynn – from the outset.

Call it a new “team of rivals.” The term, made famous by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, originally described how Lincoln put his enemies and political adversaries into powerful positions in his administration to keep them close and tie their success to his. In some measure, notably the appointment of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Obama did the same thing.

With Trump, those rivals appear to be, in some important respects, more aligned with each other than they are with the White House. They are pushing back, most notably, on Flynn’s attempts to place his people in political positions at the agencies; famously, Mattis is said to already have threatened to resign unless he gets to choose his top staff.

To be sure, there are always tensions between agencies and a White House. What is unique here is how early they have started, as the Cabinet nominees apparently felt no fear or reluctance to undermine the White House national security staff from the get-go. And Flynn appeared to have no control over them to stop it.

Such conflicts as Mattis fighting the White House on personnel decisions are already apparent, and they may well make Flynn — who did not require Senate confirmation – an ineffective and possibly short-lived National Security Advisor.

Flynn has, to put it mildly, no business being the chief advisor on foreign policy to the President. A known conspiracy theorist and Islamophobe, he is now part of the investigation assessing the potential contacts with the Russians during the Trump campaign and after.

Flynn shed any pretense of non-partisanship (a desirable goal for leaders of a president’s national security team), by starting a “lock her up!” chant during the Republican convention, and now the White House is trying to calm a nervous Cabinet and Senate about his role there. It is an inauspicious start for a man whose son promoted the “pizza gate” fake news story that resulted in a near fatal incident at Comet Pizza in Washington, D.C.

What the White House will also soon discover is that while it may have the power, the agencies have the muscle. There are, overall, very few political appointees at departments like the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and the CIA. Most employees are committed to protecting America’s safety and security regardless of partisanship, and getting things done requires that the political apparatus nurture and engage the operational aspects of its agency.

I remember what my then-boss Secretary Janet Napolitano said to me when I was part of Obama’s incoming team at the Department of Homeland Security: “Remember, there are nearly 300,000 of them, and only a couple of dozen of us.” Her point: that a political apparatus that goes to war with its agency professionals may find itself unable to effectuate basic change. Pompeo, the CIA designate, knows this and is said to be taking the transition seriously despite Trump’s publicly going to war against his intelligence agencies in the weeks after his election.

If the “team of rivals” shaping up in the new administration were not proof of Flynn’s limited influence, news reports now suggest that he may be facing a mutiny from within the White House.

Quoting a transition official, the Washington Post reported last week that Flynn’s publicly embarrassing failure to lead a seamless transition of the national security apparatus has led to other White House advisors – including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner – taking over sections of the national security docket. Flynn may find himself outflanked and, if the investigation into his ties to Russia continue, without many friends.

Only President Trump and his management style are to blame for this “Real Housewives of the Secure Room Where Classified Information is Shared.” Meanwhile, international conflicts take no break for a new president or his team’s internal conflicts.

Trump’s rough first weekend could teach his staff that it is finally time to govern. And it may also expose the weakest link in America’s national security staffing: The man at the White House, Michael Flynn.