When it comes to the National Security Council, even a deeply divided Washington has generally agreed on two things. The first is that the staff serves at the president’s pleasure. The second is that the NSC has grown far too large over the past 20 years, bloated by the demands of presidents and forever war. Despite this agreement, however, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien’s recent downsizing of the staff has rightly caused unease.
Critics worried not just about the timing of the cuts but their targets, which suggest that O’Brien’s reforms had less to do with making government better than with making it purer. The NSC’s downsizing appears to be part of Donald Trump’s wider revenge campaign against what the president has reportedly called “snakes” in Washington, and it reveals not just how much and how long the president has been intent on purifying the government, but also how much Trump has changed the way Washington works.
Congress created the National Security Council in 1947 to help the democratic government make better integrated, more strategic foreign policy after World War II. But designing a system to meet that broad mandate wasn’t easy, given Americans’ traditional trepidations about engaging with the outside world and distrust of large bureaucracy. Rather than a whole new department or agency, the solution was a bit jerry-rigged: a council that included the president and some Cabinet advisers, as well as a small staff of career officials borrowed from the military, diplomatic corps, and intelligence community.
Since then, the NSC, which is divided between those working on policy and those dedicated to administrative and technical matters, has expanded over the course of nearly every presidency. After 9/11, the NSC grew exponentially as presidents tried to manage the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress also created a separate staff known as the Homeland Security Council. The George W. Bush NSC doubled over eight years to about 200, and when Barack Obama merged the staff with the HSC, it doubled again to more than 400, more than half of whom worked on policy.
Nearly everyone in Washington—former staffers, the military, the press, Congress—agreed that was too large. In a sign of just how unsalacious the Obama years were, the size of that staff became a scandal, with the NSC accused of micromanaging rather than coordinating government. Amid the uproar, Obama agreed to cuts: Susan Rice, his last national security adviser, launched a “rightsizing” in 2015 that eventually shrank the policy staff to fewer than 180 people in 2017.
According to Washington Bureaucracy 101, where someone stands depends on where he or she sits. Following that logic, one would expect O’Brien, who had little Washington experience when named national security adviser in September, to boost his influence with a strong and robust staff. That’s why even for those of us who have advocated shrinking the staff—in a history of the NSC published last year, I argued it was too big to be managed effectively—O’Brien’s quick decision to launch a drastic cut was surprising and seemed contrary to his interests.
At one of the first town-hall meetings with the 174-person staff he inherited, O’Brien summarily announced that dozens of positions would be eliminated within months. In an op-ed in The Washington Post and in public remarks, O’Brien explained that he wanted to make the staff “more effective by reaffirming its mission to coordinate policy and ensure policy implementation,” while also reducing redundancies between the NSC and government agencies. He also said, “The president has to have confidence in his NSC staff.”
The national security adviser’s op-ed did not mention Obama holdovers, but they were clearly the target of that “confidence” line. O’Brien took over a staff that had been beleaguered by a years-long battle between Trump supporters and career officials deemed loyal to Trump’s predecessor. Given that the average length of NSC tenures is just one to two years, few holdovers were left three years after Trump’s inauguration. Still, O’Brien’s purge, which cut more than 60 policy staffers, was not about bringing peace to the staff, but finally winning the war at the NSC.
O’Brien’s urgency appears to have been driven as well by the fallout over the president’s scheme to pressure Ukraine for political dirt on a campaign rival. He began trimming staff just as the report by a whistleblower, who reportedly had ties to the NSC, became public and Congress launched its inquiry into the affair. That investigation and testimony by staffers such as Alexander Vindman, an Army lieutenant colonel loaned to the NSC to work on Ukraine, revealed deep resistance to the scheme by several on the staff.
The purge’s true purpose was made clear by one of its last victims. Less than 48 hours after the U.S. Senate acquitted Trump in the impeachment hearing, O’Brien had Vindman escorted off the White House grounds. Though O’Brien suggested that the dismissal was part of the broader cuts and that the escort was routine, Trump’s Twitter feed said otherwise. Around the time of the departure, the president retweeted a post that called on Vindman, who had received military commendations and glowing reviews from previous supervisors, to be “removed from the @realdonaldtrump White House ASAP.”
A snake hunt at the NSC and around the rest of the U.S. government is cause for concern, but O’Brien’s cuts reveal something even more disturbing about how much Washington has changed under Trump.
The size, scope, and speed of O’Brien’s downsizing would be unthinkable for previous national security advisers, who worried about risk for a living and thus wanted as strong and dedicated a staff as could be managed. O’Brien seems more worried about the risk of leaks against the president than the risk of being too shorthanded to meet the myriad security challenges facing the country. With the purge, he’s sent the signal that the staff’s loyalty is more important than its quality (or quantity), which means fealty also trumps national security.
With the downsizing, O’Brien has put himself in a terrible position. His clumsy spin on the cuts—he claimed, “We are not a banana republic”— has tarred his public credibility. And if something goes wrong, he’ll be blamed by just about everyone—including Trump—despite his smaller staff. Moreover, if (or when) Trump turns on him O’Brien will have fewer people to lean on for help. After gutting your staff in a snake hunt, it’s much harder to fight back whenever you’re accused of being a snake.
Why would anyone so dramatically act against his or her own interests? The answer is that the normal rules of bureaucratic politics no longer apply. In Trump’s Washington, power depends not on where you sit but on what you’re willing to do to please the man sitting at the head of the Situation Room table. The purity test starts at the top. O’Brien is not the first to bend his knee to Trump, but his pledge of allegiance and purge of the staff will ultimately undermine the NSC’s principal mission.
After all, demanding loyalty at the NSC or anywhere else in government does far more than cut staffers. As the scholar Francis Fukuyama has argued, America’s nonpolitical, functional bureaucracy has long defended the country against corruption and promoted the rule of law. By purging the NSC bureaucracy to please Trump, O’Brien is risking one of the most important things it was designed to protect: America’s democracy.