Editor’s Note: David Axelrod is CNN’s senior political commentator and host of the podcast “The Axe Files.” He was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Contrary to what Sean Spicer said, Axelrod says he and Robert Gibbs did not regularly attend the most sensitive National Security Council meetings
Axelrod: Former Breitbart chief Steve Bannon will exercise authority no political adviser has had before
I woke up this morning as an Alternative Fact.
In justifying the appointment of Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, to the National Security Council, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer cited my role in the Obama White House as a precedent. Spicer said press secretary Robert Gibbs and I attended classified National Security Council meetings “all the time.”
That is simply not true.
As a senior adviser to President Obama in 2009, I had the opportunity to witness the fateful deliberations of his National Security Council Principals committee over the strategy the U.S would pursue in the war with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I was not a member of the committee. I did not speak or participate. I sat on the sidelines as a silent observer with Gibbs because we would be called upon to publicly discuss the president’s decision on that critical matter and the process by which he arrived at it.
We knew our presence chagrined some of the principals but, acting on the president’s instructions, we were there to gain a thorough understanding of what would be one of the most important judgments he would make as commander-in-chief.
Our access also came with limits. We were barred from some of the most sensitive meetings on the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review so as not to inhibit discussions.
Beyond that, Gibbs and I did not attend regular meetings of the NSC Principals committee or their deputies nor were we invited to weekly meetings on terrorist threats.
We did not attend the president’s regular meetings with the Secretary of Defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff nor with the Secretary of State.
We did not sit in on the president’s daily intelligence briefing.
Our expertise was in politics and communications, not national security and foreign policy and our attendance, much less participation, in these meetings would have been inappropriate.
Where aides were needed, the National Security Adviser and Chief of Staff filled the role.
In elevating Bannon to sit with the Secretaries of Defense and State and other key national security figures on the NSC principals committee, President Trump has blazed new ground. Bannon will exercise authority no political adviser has had before. He will be a full participant, not an observer, in national security deliberations.
Under the president’s announced structure, Bannon has eclipsed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence on the National Security Council.
Indeed, Bannon already has emerged as the president’s most trusted adviser on global affairs, an area in which Trump has little expertise.
It was Bannon who guided the drafting of Trump’s controversial immigration order. According to reports, the Secretary of Defense and director of Homeland Security were not consulted; the State Department was caught unawares.
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The order, which has roiled the world, reflected not only Trump’s campaign pledge for “extreme vetting” but the white nationalist, anti-immigrant bent of Breitbart News, the organization Bannon led before joining Trump’s campaign team.
Trump’s warmth to right-wing populist movements in Europe and hostility to trade and global institutions are wholly consistent with the worldview of Bannon’s Breitbart, which recently opened bureaus in France and Germany in advance of elections there.
Ten days in, this much is clear: Steve Bannon is playing a role in national security and foreign policy for which there is no precedent.
And for better or worse, he already is making an impact.