Congress could have saved Donald Trump a tweet. Last week, the president took to Twitter to announce the departure of his irascible national security adviser, John Bolton, who had either quit, been fired, or both. Yet if Congress had had a vote, Bolton, whose sharp elbows and hawkish views on Iran and North Korea have never made him very popular on Capitol Hill or anywhere else in Washington, may never have become national security adviser in the first place.
Unfortunately for Trump, who learned the hard way just how hard it is to work with Bolton, Congress has never required confirmation of the national security adviser, instead deferring to presidents to choose their staff. Given the importance of the position and Trump’s selection today of the relatively unknown lawyer Robert O’Brien as Bolton’s replacement, as well as the questions about Trump’s own management of national security, it is time for that to change. Congressional approval of Trump’s pick for national security adviser would be good for him, and for all of us.
The job of national security adviser has always been a bureaucratic oddity. When Congress created the National Security Council, the forum designed to get the president, vice president, and secretaries of state and defense into one room to come up with integrated foreign-policy decisions, it established a small staff but did not envision creating such a prominent leader. Only in 1953 did President Dwight Eisenhower introduce an “assistant to the president for national-security affairs,” but the role was to be more akin to an executive officer in the military, helping to manage NSC meetings, memoranda, and staff.
Despite its humble origins and narrow legal foundation, in less than 20 years the position became known—by its unofficial title of “national security adviser”—as the most powerful appointed post in Washington. As government grew and America’s engagement with the world evolved during the Cold War, the influence of staffers grew along with the power of the presidency itself. Charismatic advisers such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski also made the job seem even more important than it looked on organizational charts.
For the most part, Congress accepted the rise of a bureaucratic heavyweight without asserting its authority to provide advice and consent on the president’s appointments, which was originally meant not just as a part of a system of checks and balances, but also as a means to keep incompetent presidential cronies out of government. It is not that the idea of making the national security adviser a Senate-confirmable post has never been discussed or threatened before, but letting the president make the selection is one of many practices, used during Democratic and Republican Congresses and presidencies, that have become part of Washington common law.
The closest Washington came to changing that rule of thumb was in the 1980s. As part of what became known as the Iran-Contra affair, President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser and some of the NSC staff pursued a scheme to trade weapons to Iran and then illegally use the proceeds to support those battling Nicaragua’s socialist government. When the plan and an attempted cover-up were exposed, some called for the eradication of the staff itself, or at least congressional oversight of the national security adviser.
However, as I wrote for The Atlantic in May, much of official Washington took another view, best articulated by the special review board established to look into Iran-Contra and led by former Senator John Tower, former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. The so-called Tower Board concluded that the national-security system was the “president’s creature” and that, like the rest of the White House staff, the role of national security adviser should be malleable to fit the president’s “individual work habits and philosophical predilections.” Not only did the board recommend against confirmation; its members encouraged Congress to trust the president.
Despite how little government experience Trump brings to the White House, Congress has mostly accorded the current commander in chief the same deference. Although there was some vocal discomfort with his early decision to appoint his controversial political adviser Steve Bannon to one NSC committee, Trump has been allowed to shape the system to fit his habits and predilections. He has used the freedom not only to remove Bannon from the committee after a few months, but also to delegate some authorities, and to fire three national security advisers, including Bolton last week, during his almost 32 months in office.
As Trump begins work with a record fourth national security adviser in his first term, Congress needs to step up. In his remarks last week on the search for Bolton’s successor, in which the president claimed the job was “easy,” Trump demonstrated just how little he has learned about government while in office. Congress created the NSC 70 years ago, and accepted the national security adviser in the first place, because both were supposed to not only make the president’s job easier but also do the job Congress wanted done: ensuring that decisions were made with some regularity and rigor.
Like his predecessors, Trump would likely complain about any new checks on presidential authority, but Congress has required confirmation of previously unconfirmable White House positions before. The Budget Bureau, which was created in the 1920s to ensure fiscal coordination across government, grew to be one of the most powerful offices at the White House, and President Richard Nixon empowered it further as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), granting its director authority over Cabinet agencies. A concerned Congress pushed back and voted to require confirmation of future OMB directors.
Congress has also demonstrated that it can wield such authority responsibly. In 2007, President George W. Bush wanted to appoint Army Lieutenant General Doug Lute to the new position of “deputy national security adviser for Iraq in Afghanistan,” a job that quickly became known in Washington as the “war czar.” But because Congress controls appointments of general and flag officers, the U.S. Senate got to approve the assignment. Even when a contentious confirmation hearing exposed doubts about Bush’s management of the war and the NSC, the Senate still approved Lute’s assignment, 94–4.
The power of today’s national security adviser far exceeds that of Nixon’s OMB director or Bush’s war czar. In addition to supporting the president, the adviser is supposed to serve as an intermediary with foreign leaders, the coordinator of the work of congressionally confirmed Cabinet secretaries and their agencies, the conductor of idea generation in interagency conversations, and the leader of a staff of several hundred people. The position’s potential influence is one reason so many consider it a central part of the so-called imperial presidency, and worried when Bolton, whose hard-line views made him unconfirmable when nominated to be ambassador to the United Nations in 2005, got the job under Trump last year.
Despite that power, most of Washington and many in Congress would still hesitate to start a fight over confirmation, which might require a threat to withhold some part of the White House’s budget. Even with an irregular president like Trump, Congress’s inclination to defer to the executive on foreign policy and national security remains strong. And any effort to undermine the strength of this presidency will box in future presidents who may be more regular, politically palatable, or both.
But it is past time to change this practice. Given that Trump is already going through national security advisers at a record pace, Congress needs to finally rewrite one of Washington’s common laws. Requiring the national security adviser to be confirmed by the Senate would be good for Trump, good for O’Brien, good for Congress, and good for the country.
Whether the president could admit it or not, Trump should remember that his best national security adviser was approved by Congress. Because H. R. McMaster was an active-duty general officer like Lute, Congress had to approve his assignment to the White House. With congressional consent on a vote of 86–10, McMaster served under Trump, and occasionally annoyed him, from February 2017 to April 2018. Though the end was ugly, the relationship could not have been so bad: Trump reportedly reached out to McMaster as his own frustration with Bolton grew.
Confirmation might limit the aspirations of ideologues like Bolton, but it could benefit relative unknowns like O’Brien. The reality is that more damage has been done when weak national security advisers have had little influence over the president or control over the process. For example, Reagan’s ineffective national security advisers presided over disarray in Washington and misdeeds abroad. Gaining congressional backing and a more robust public reputation would empower O’Brien in his battles in the Oval Office and around government.
More than helping the White House, requiring confirmation of the national security adviser would benefit both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Members of the Democratic caucus can spend less time getting mad about what the president does and more getting even by restoring the balance of power between Congress and the imperial presidency. In the same way, Republicans who support the president but felt better when he was surrounded by what some called the “adults in the room” can be sure that an adult is not only in the room, but able to do the job the next time a crisis strikes.
In addition to the benefits in Washington, confirmation hearings for Trump’s national security adviser would be good for a public that is more and more concerned about those who serve it. Trust that the federal government can handle domestic and international problems has sunk to the lowest level in two decades, according to a recent Gallup poll. The decline in trust of government’s competency is surely tied as well to doubts about those serving in it: A survey last year found that 74 percent of Americans believe that a group of unelected officials can control government policy without accountability.
At a time of crises in every region in the world, there is neither what some call a “deep state” managing affairs in Washington nor a president running government in the way Americans or Congress have come to expect in the past 70 years. At a moment when so much—including whether the national security adviser is fired or hired—depends on presidential tweets, the American people should know that the president is getting the best advice possible. Right now the Senate can help ensure that he will.