Earlier this summer, National Security Council experts were working to implement harsh penalties against Chinese technology behemoth ZTE when President Donald Trump caught them off-guard with a tweet about making deals with the foreign company.
Sources present in the Old Executive Office Building that day told CNN that after receiving a call from Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump blindsided NSC officials by declaring he wanted to get ZTE “back into business,” obliterating weeks of work by his staff who, until that moment, had been implementing the President’s original agenda.
It is well within the President’s authority to dictate foreign policy, but Trump’s often impulsive handling of world affairs, unorthodox management style and general disdain for bureaucracy have, for better or for worse, fundamentally transformed the National Security Council.
Critics argue the NSC, historically the commander in chief’s premier national security advisory body, has been “neutered” under Trump. Supporters say the council, made up of Cabinet officials and security experts who synthesize policies from across the government, has been streamlined to operate more efficiently.
Both critics and supporters say changes at the NSC have been kicked into overdrive by Trump’s third national security adviser, John Bolton, leaving a swath of current and former national security officials worried that the former United Nations ambassador is undermining the NSC’s critical role in helping a president mull all the options and make the best choices to keep the country safe.
Beyond Bolton, though, the most central figure in the council’s evolution is the President himself. A real estate mogul with no prior foreign policy experience, Trump is uniquely positioned to need the NSC’s expertise, even as he displays little interest in using it.
Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear” depicts a national security team unnerved by the President’s lack of knowledge or curiosity about world affairs, as well as his contempt for the views of military and intelligence leaders. Defense Secretary James Mattis is quoted saying Trump’s understanding matches that of “a fifth- or sixth-grader.”
Mattis later said the quotes attributed to him were “a product of someone’s rich imagination.”
That lack of curiosity and knowledge, coupled with the President’s impulsiveness, might be the biggest obstacle to a properly functioning NSC, said Jamil Jaffer, a former associate White House counsel to President George W. Bush and founder of the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.
“If key policy decisions are being made in real time at press conferences, press gaggles and on Twitter, it makes the NSC policy process significantly less effective,” Jaffer said, “and dramatically reduces the ability of the President to get the best policy advice from his own staff as well as his Cabinet officials and executive departments.”
Trump ignores advice and facts
Presidents have used the NSC in different ways since it was founded in 1947. Some, like Harry Truman, rarely attended NSC meetings, making major decisions with the help of only a few advisers. Others, like Barack Obama, have leaned heavily on its expertise.
Since taking office, Trump has demonstrated little interest in grinding policy discussions and grown increasingly impatient with long-winded national security briefings, resulting in an NSC that has been shrinking in size and influence over the course of his presidency, according to accounts from several current and former Trump administration officials.
Despite grappling with major challenges – including North Korea, Russia and rising tensions with Iran – Trump has demonstrated a tendency to react according to his own instincts and at times with a disregard for information presented by NSC experts, insisting instead on his own facts, according to former Trump administration officials.
Even though NSC officials limited multi-page briefings on key issues to three bullet points on a notecard, they rarely got the sense that Trump was reading and internalizing information, one former senior Trump administration official told CNN.
Instead, they found the President repeatedly ignored it, insisting, for example, that the US has a trade deficit with Canada, even though NSC officials assured him during several in-person briefings that, in fact, it has a surplus.
NSC officials have also sought to dissuade Trump of the notion that NATO members who have not met their commitment to devote a certain percentage of their gross domestic product to defense spending owe the US money.