President Donald Trump with national security adviser Robert C. O'Brien
FPI / January 2, 2020
The Trump administration is significantly downsizing the White House National Security Council not only to improve efficiency but, analysts say, to rid the NSC of Obama-era holdovers suspected of leaking President Donald Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders.
White House national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien said in a recent interview with The Washington Times that 40 to 45 NSC staff officials were in recent months sent back to the agencies where they originally worked, with more likely to be moved out.
“We remain on track to meeting the right-sizing goal Ambassador O’Brien outlined in October, and in fact may exceed that target by drawing down even more positions,” said NSC spokesman John Ullyot.
Under President Barack Obama, the NSC staff grew to as many as 450 people. O’Brien said he plans to cut the staff to fewer than 120 policy officials by early next year.
“A second, unspoken thrust of the overhaul is a hoped-for end to what many critics see as a string of politically damaging, unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information,” Bill Gertz wrote for The Washington Times on Dec. 31. Leaks of the president’s conversations with foreign leaders “and other damaging disclosures likely originated with anti-Trump officials in the White House who stayed over from the Obama administration,” according to several current and former White House officials.
NSC officials held over from the Obama administration are suspected of leaking sensitive details of Trump’s telephone calls with foreign leaders.
After Trump’s election victory over Hillary Clinton in November 2016 and continuing through the spring of 2017, a series of unauthorized disclosures to news outlets appeared to come from within the White House. Several of the leaks involved publication of sensitive transcripts of the president’s conversations with foreign leaders.
Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said last year that he sent the Department of Justice eight criminal referrals related to the leaks, including those related to Trump’s conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia.
Former White House strategist Steve Bannon said efforts to weed out the Obama holdovers was a priority early in the administration.
“The NSC had gotten so big there were over 450 billets,” said Bannon, adding that he and others tried to remove the Obama detailees from the White House. “We wanted them out. And I think we would have avoided a lot of the problems we got today if they had been sent back to their agencies.”
The partisan impeachment of Trump by House Democrats had its origins with an Obama-era holdover, widely reported to be a CIA detailee to the NSC staff. The whistleblower filed an official complaint in August saying he had learned secondhand that Trump’s telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky involved discussions of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
The CIA detailee was among the more than 40 officials returned to their agencies.
O’Brien noted that the NSC had a policymaking staff of 12 in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy battled the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis. During the 2000s and the George W. Bush administration, the number of NSC staff members increased sharply to support the three-front conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terrorism.
During the Obama administration, Gertz noted, “the NSC was transformed into a major policymaking agency seeking to duplicate the functions of the State and Defense departments within the White House.”
On Obama’s watch, NSC officials “wielded enormous power. NSC staff members were known to telephone commanders in Afghanistan and other locations in the Middle East with orders — a violation of the military’s strict chain of command,” military officials familiar with the calls told Gertz.
“I just don’t think that we need the numbers of people that it expanded to under the last administration to do this job right,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said that “The NSC staff became bloated during the prior administration. The NSC is a coordinating body. I am trying to get us back to a lean and efficient staff that can get the job done, can coordinate with our interagency partners, and make sure the president receives the best advice he needs to make the decisions necessary to keep the American people safe.”
Free Press International