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Trump's new national security strategy sticks close to its predecessors

President Donald Trump will unveil his national security strategy Monday and it looks a lot like those of his predecessors in its broad stokes.
Image: President Donald Trump before signing the executive order 'Space Policy Directive 1', in the Roosevelt Room
President Donald Trump before signing the executive order 'Space Policy Directive 1', in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on Dec. 11, 2017.Michael Reynolds / EPA file

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is set to unveil his national security strategy Monday, largely adhering to the approach of his two predecessors with a pledge to bolster homeland security and prosperity while exerting American influence abroad.

Nearly a year after taking office, Trump will roll out the long-awaited national security framework in a televised speech, translating campaign promises into official government policy. It’s the first framework of its kind to be issued since former President Barack Obama’s second and last strategy was provided in 2015. White House officials say it’s meant to serve as a springboard for several more in-depth policy outlines to come.

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Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said last week that the plan is broken down into four pillars: Defending the homeland, American prosperity, advancing American influence, and peace through strength.

Senior White House officials who briefed journalists ahead of the rollout said the plan also echoes the president’s longstanding views on the need for pushback against China as a competitor — in the military, economic and informational domains. While the White House acknowledges the policy isn’t dramatically different from past strategies, it describes President Trump’s emphasis on border and Homeland security as “unprecedented.”

Excerpts provided to NBC News ahead of the framework’s release underscore a concern by the administration that “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”

“They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence,” the document says.

McMaster said that the administration views security abroad as being intertwined with homeland security. Among its priorities: Cutting off funding to terrorist groups and fighting their ideology; disrupting safe havens for terror cells and using government tools, such as the military, law enforcement and economic cooperation to deter any threats at home and abroad.

The strategy outlines three main challengers in America’s global “contest for power.” The first, the administration describes as “revisionist powers” — namely China and Russia, which it says are seeking to shape the world through values contradictory to those of the U.S. Second, the administration warns of “the rogue states of Iran and North Korea.” Finally, it underscores the challenges posed by transnational threat organizations, specifically jihadist groups.

“Although differing in nature and magnitude, these rivals compete across political, economic, and military arenas, and use technology and information to accelerate these contests, in order to shift regional balances of power in their favor,” the policy says, according to advanced excerpts.

But the strategy also emphasizes the need for cooperation while still maintaining competitiveness. Already, it says, it’s putting that approach into practice — most recently in its efforts to help Russia thwart a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke twice in four days, including on Sunday, when Putin called to thank Trump for the assistance of U.S. intelligence agencies in deterring an attack, according to a White House readout.

The White House also emphasizes the need for cooperation with China on deterring the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.

In large part, the Trump administration’s new strategy echoes many of the key policy goals outlined in former President George W. Bush’s 2006 strategy and Obama’s 2015 policy. Obama’s last strategy touted the need to lead with strength and by example. It also asserted, as a priority, efforts for preventing threats or attacks against U.S. citizens at home and abroad and for deterring nuclear proliferation or use of weapons of mass destruction.

Mandated by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department Reorganization Act, national security strategies were originally intended as annual updates submitted by the White House to Congress. However, recent administrations have not done annual updates to their policies.

Unlike his predecessors, Trump, who describes himself as the “law and order president,” is moving forward with several controversial measures in the name of bolstered homeland security. He is slowly moving forward with his plans to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico — part of his approach to tackling illegal immigration and drug trafficking into the country.

He’s also battling the courts to implement a ban on travelers and refugees from countries the administration deems high-risk for suspected terrorists.

Trump has additionally touted the need for fair, but not “free trade” — a theme that also appears in his new national security strategy. Often the subject of his attacks is China, which the president has repeatedly urged — in public and in private — to close the trade deficit.

“The biggest difference in the Trump policy is that this is the starting gun for a series of actions that they apparently want to take against China,” said Michael Allen, former special assistant to the president in Bush 44’s National Security Council.

“They’ve been signaling this since Trump’s recent Asia trip. That’s the most significant takeaway,” said Allen, who is now managing director at Beacon Global Strategies.

In October, the administration announced its broader plans to clamp down on Iran, a portion of which is included in the broader national security strategy. The policy addresses the need to dismantle Iranian influence in countries across the Middle East, which includes strengthened alliances with Sunni Muslim countries across the region. It also calls for an increased crackdown in the military activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and strengthened ties with pro-democratic groups in Iran.

“Given Trump’s approach to geopolitics, there are some thematic differences that will probably jump out,” said Brian McKeon, former principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy and former chief counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Promoting values and human rights, the way he approaches trade — those are some significant differences from the two previous administrations.” McKeon said.

Still, it’s Trump’s unpredictable nature that lends mystery to even some of the administration’s most carefully crafted policies. While policy announcements traditionally preceded public messaging, advisers now often scramble to reshape policy to catch up with the president’s tweets and public declarations.

On subjects from Qatar to Russia and, most recently, his surprise call for a ban on transgender people in the military, the president’s tendency to tweet his mind is blindsiding advisers and, in some cases, complicating or even upending administration policy.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in August that Trump’s sometimes incendiary tweets are just “part of the environment in which we work.”

“We’ll adapt to it,” Tillerson said at the time. “There’s a lot of unexpected things that happen to us in the world of diplomacy and we know how to adapt to that, we know how work with it. I don’t view it as an obstacle, hindrance or as assistance. Whatever the president chooses to express, he expresses, and then that’s information to everybody — us included.”