Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon stripped of national security council role

Spencer Ackerman in New York

Donald Trump’s political strategist Steve Bannon has lost his place on the national security council in a staff shakeup, documents show.

A presidential memorandum dated 4 April took Bannon, the former Breitbart News executive and chief White House link to the nationalist rightwing, off the country’s main body for foreign policy and national security decision-making. It also restores the traditional roles of the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the director of national intelligence to the NSC.

While the revamp is likely to be seen as a victory for Trump’s second national security adviser, army lieutenant general HR McMaster, the substantive impact of the shakeup remains to be seen. A parallel security structure in the Eisenhower executive office building, known as the Strategic Initiatives Group, reports to Bannon, whose close relationship with Trump suggests continued influence in this administration.

While the White House on Wednesday pushed back against the perception that Bannon had been demoted, McMaster’s camp described Bannon’s removal and the restoration of joint chiefs chairman Gen Joseph Dunford and intelligence chief Dan Coats to the council as a key objective for the national security adviser.

“Huge,” said one McMaster ally who requested anonymity. “That’s a big deal.”

The ally said the move showed McMaster establishing his influence with the president. McMaster was neither part of Trump’s election team nor even his second choice to run the NSC.

The McMaster ally described Bannon’s removal as a “priority” for senior advisers “both in and out of the West Wing”, including defense secretary James Mattis.

Bannon’s presence on the council, which considers itself above partisan politics, was considered troubling to those aligned with McMaster.

In addition, McMaster “absolutely” wanted Dunford and Coats clearly positioned as permanent members of the NSC, a step that the memorandum restored.

The memorandum placed McMaster in a dominant position over the Homeland Security Council, giving him the power to determine the agenda for both bodies. It also empowers homeland security chief Tom Bossert and economic policy chief Gary Cohn to prepare Trump for key decisions requiring presidential action “at the sole discretion of the national security adviser”.

An army lieutenant general, whose status as an active duty officer made it difficult for him to turn down his commander-in-chief, McMaster took the NSC job on 20 February after Trump fired Michael Flynn for lying to the vice-president about Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador to Washington. Trump’s next choice for national security adviser, retired vice-admiral Robert Harward, then declined the position.

Questions have since loomed over the influence that McMaster wields. A foreign-policy traditionalist close to Mattis, McMaster has slowly installed similarly minded people, such as Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution for the Russia portfolio and Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation for the South Asia director.

Flynn’s influence remains visible, as evidenced by the ongoing controversy concerning surveillance leaks. A key figure in the accusations of inappropriate disclosures of intercepted communications made by House intelligence committee chief Devin Nunes is Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Flynn aide who holds the intelligence portfolio on the NSC.

Additionally, the memorandum specifies that Bannon rival Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, along with counsel Don McGahn and budget director Mick Mulvaney are “invited as attendees to any NSC meeting”. So is Jon Eisenberg, the deputy counsel to Trump for national security, another person who reportedly helped provide Nunes with ammunition for his accusations.

The importance of the NSC is also likely to grow by default. Neither Mattis nor secretary of state Rex Tillerson have most of their deputies, undersecretaries and assistant secretaries in place, meaning that critical policymaking work on global crisis – from Syria to North Korea – will be in the hands of the NSC staffers ostensibly tasked with coordinating policy on those fields.

But much of White House decision-making relies on proximity to Trump, which Bannon will retain. Trump has made his son-in-law, adviser Jared Kushner, a point person on initiatives ranging from Middle East peace to Mexico to criminal justice overhauls. Dunford recently brought Kushner on a trip to Iraq in what Pentagon officials have described as a concerted effort to cultivate the true power centers in the Trump administration.

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