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The past seven days may have answered a central question about how the Trump Administration intends to approach national security policy, at least early on. Trump, it turns out, meant what he said during the campaign.
One by one last month, Trump’s nominees to lead the Pentagon, the CIA, and the State and Homeland Security Departments sat before senators during their confirmation hearings and took mainstream conservative positions that were at odds with Trump’s rhetoric over the last year on Russia, NATO, torture and other issues.
How, many observers wondered, would the conventional views of Trump’s cabinet be reconciled with the more extreme positions embraced by his key White House advisers, Stephen Bannon and Michael Flynn?
The answer, at least in the first week of Trump’s presidency, is that the White House will carry the day.
On Friday, the administration issued a hugely consequential and controversial executive order on refugees without fully consulting the national security agencies. And then it reorganized the National Security Council in a way that awarded a spot on an important committee to a domestic political adviser — Bannon.
All that happened after Trump aides circulated a draft executive order on CIA and military interrogations prepared without consulting Secretary of Defense James Mattis or CIA Director Mike Pompeo, according to officials, both of whom are on record opposing torture. If implemented as written, the memo would potentially open to door to using overseas CIA prisons and brutal interrogation techniques.
In the latter case, Mattis and Pompeo won a partial victory. The White House disavowed the leaked document and Trump said he would follow Mattis’ advice, for now, against seeking to use torture. But that came after Trump publicly endorsed the effectiveness of torture. How the Trump administration will proceed on interrogation is unclear.
The refugee order — which blocked the State Department from issuing visas for 90 days from residents of seven majority-Muslim countries — was written under the supervision of White House domestic policy adviser Stephen Miller, who works closely with Bannon, officials told NBC News. Career government officials who might have outlined the implications of such an order did not have a chance to weigh in, said officials at the State, Defense, Homeland Security and Justice Departments.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday that “the people that needed to be kept on the loop were kept in the loop,” but he declined to say who was informed or when.
The order provoked domestic and international outcry, even as the government struggled to come to terms with how to implement it. There was confusion, for example, about whether the order would apply to Green Card holders. Homeland Security Secretary James Kelly issued a statement Sunday saying it would not.
Experts from across the national security spectrum denounced it as something that will harm U.S. national security by playing into the hands of Islamic extremists. More than 100 foreign service officers are reported to have signed a “dissent channel” memo calling the refugee order un-American. And, after legal challenges, four federal judges around the country issued temporary stays barring the government from deporting refugees subject to the new policy.
On the NSC reorganization, the White House made a concession Monday. After criticism over the lack of a permanent role for the CIA director, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House spokesman Sean Spicer said an order on the NSC structure would be amended to make clear that the CIA director is a member of the so-called principals committee. But he defended the installation of Bannon, noting that President Obama’s domestic adviser, David Axelrod, used to attend some NSC meetings.
“Plainly Bannon is driving this train,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, who views that as an unwelcome development.
Not everyone agrees that the matter has been decided. Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke University and a former adviser to President George W. Bush, said the lack of consultation about the refugee order may simply reflect a government that isn’t fully staffed. It’s too soon to tell, he said, where the real power centers of national security lie in the Trump administration.
“The bigger picture is that they are slowly developing an interagency process and they are slowly staffing it up, and they have a separate executive action process than has been on a faster timetable and has outpaced the interagency process,” Feaver said. “I would expect, over time, that the interagency process will catch up.”
When that happens, Feaver said, it will be more clear which views will prevail.
The next test of how these disagreements will be resolved may come over the issue of sanctions on Russia. Trump aide Kellyanne Conway said last week that the administration was considering lifting sanctions on Russia, though she did not specify whether she meant those imposed in connection with election hacking, or with Russia’s seizure of Crimea.
Mattis, Pompeo and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are on the record as in favor of a tough stance toward Russia. So are GOP leaders in Congress.
"I'm absolutely opposed to lifting sanctions on the Russians," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Sunday, according to the Associated Press. "If anything, we ought to be looking at increasing them."