If Joe Biden wins Tuesday’s election, he won’t have to start over like Jimmy Carter did. But he will still find himself needing to rebuild – and possibly even completely recreate – NSC Donald Trump has left behind, according to interviews with nearly a dozen current and past US officials.
“Trump wanted a very weak NSC to maximize his personal autonomy – essentially allowing him to run by tweet,” said Peter Feaver of Duke University, who served on George W’s NSC. Bush, said. “One way he’s done this is to make it smaller.”
During Barack Obama̵7;s time in power, NSC’s staff increased to more than 200 people. Critics accuse the NSC of becoming less serious and overactive, micromanaging everything from the military level in Afghanistan to promoting democracy in Myanmar.
Trump’s team severely cut NSC policy staff and along the way left many professional officials marginalized amid an atmosphere of mutual distrust.
“We are not only on the sidelines, but also respected,” said a former NSC employee who stayed behind after the Obama-Trump transition. “It’s not a hospitable environment at all.”
A spokesman for the Biden transition effort declined to comment on his plans for the NSC. His aides asserted their top priority now is to win Tuesday’s election, and those in and around the former Vice Chairman’s campaign say they don’t take it for granted. course.
But if it wins, Biden is expected to significantly consolidate and reshape the NSC to align with its foreign policy priorities. So: more focus on pandemic, climate change and economic regulation, and less focus on traditional jobs, focus on security during the Trump years.
Biden will also face dilemmas, such as whether to continue the professional government employees who served during the Trump era or start with a completely clean vehicle.
Perhaps above all, Michael Singh, former aide to the George W. Bush administration, said Biden will have to decide “whether he will make the NSC the primary driver of everything security related. nation “as Obama did, or give more power to the Cabinet. the agencies.
That is the standard for a new president to reshape the NSC to his liking. But current and former US officials, as well as foreign affairs analysts who closely watch the NSC, expect an unusual level of change under Biden based on how the agency currently operates under Trump era.
Biden’s first priority is likely to be national security adviser; Tony Blinken, his longtime foreign policy assistant, is the favorite. (Blinken has signaled that, unlike Trump, a Biden presidency would emphasize international alliances and promote democracy as part of his foreign policy, but he said little about how organizations like the NSC will be structured.)
The next task will be to evaluate, reorganize and potentially expand the list of government employees and the politically appointed people who make up the NSC employee.
When he took office in the fall of 2019, Trump national security adviser Robert O’Brien quickly reshaped the council’s policy staff, by his number, from 174 to officials. Authorities say about 110 people today. That’s down more than a third.
Those changes come after years of leaks and harmful accusations from Trump that a “deep state” in the government’s bureaucracy is hampering his agenda. During Obama’s final years, his team also reduced the number of NSC staff, but now former US officials say O’Brien has fallen too deeply.
“There is only so much fat you can cut down, and you’ll soon start building muscle. A former Obama administration official said.
Throughout Trump’s tenure, the NSC struggled to achieve its official purpose – coordinating policymaking among agencies – partly because the president tended to disagree with expert advice. , make quick decisions and often change your mind.
Those were four tumultuous years: Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was fired and later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI; His second, HR McMaster, never collaborated with Trump and lasted about a year; His third person, John Bolton, wrote a memoir recounting that the president was “a wonderful way without information” and called him a “danger to the republic.”
The NSC has also been marginalized by other actors, such as Trump’s son-in-law, senior adviser Jared Kushner and senior assistant Stephen Miller, on the sidelines on key issues from the Israel-Palestine crisis to immigration policy. .
When O’Brien took over Bolton, he sought to revive the traditional NSC policy-making process – a highly structured system of memos and meetings involving Cabinet members and other top aides. Bolton has cut down on frequent gatherings of high-ranking officials, preferring to keep decisions in his own hands.
According to NSC spokesman John Ullyot, O’Brien held more than 238 meetings of the so-called Principal and House committees – more than 40 percent of such meetings over Trump’s entire term.
However, O’Brien sometimes appears to disagree with Trump and other high-ranking officials – such as a conflict with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Afghanistan.
In addition to the extensive information, Biden has left some public clues about his plans to the NSC. One specific promise he made was to immediately reinstate the Director of Global Health Security and Biodefense, which Bolton had been demolishing. Obama alums said that unit may have helped fight the coronavirus pandemic.
A particularly sensitive question for the Biden team is how many current NSC employees will be asked to leave their positions. Of course, Trump’s political appointees at the NSC will leave before Inauguration Day. But the NSC is mainly comprised of the detailed professional government employees from other agencies.
When Trump first took office in the Oval Office, many of his political appointees mistreated career workers at the NSC and elsewhere in government. Such public servants are mocked as “Obama supporters”, even as some have been in power for decades, and many are accused of not being loyal enough to Trump.
Democrats are among the most stout defenders for career officials who find themselves on Trump’s list of political appointees. But among the current Biden supporters, there is a reluctance to trust the professional government employees who have chosen to join the Trump NSC at this final stage.
“Given the level of dysfunction, challenges facing the Biden-Harris administration, I think attracting new people will be as useful as possible,” said the former NSC employee.
Some comments suggested that each employee should be interviewed and evaluated on a case-by-case basis. All say it is important not to use language like “Trump holdover” or “deep state” to restore the morale of career employees in general.
When Hadley worked as George W. Bush’s national security adviser, he sought to minimize the problems he had seen with other presidential lawsuits. He helped lead the organization of what is often described as the “gold standard” of transition in the final year of his second term.
That involves holding regular meetings with Obama’s transition aides and preparing dozens of brief memos for the upcoming team.
Biden and his transition team won’t know everything they need to do regarding the NSC until they meet Trump aides and get access to White House grounds. There were concerns that the Trump team would not be as it should be.
“I’m really worried about this transition,” said a former US official. “You have a lot of crazy guys who will be tempted to do things that are meant to lock in some kind of policy by creating a problem that prevents doing what the new administration will want to do. Or just simply defiant “.
But Biden and his team will need to move fast to build the national security infrastructure they envision if he fulfills the many promises he made during the 2020 campaign.
“You have the opportunity in the early days to have the greatest impact on you,” said a second former US official. “You have the motivation of the election. And a fresh start. ”
Luckily for Biden, “NSC staff is the most flexible agency in the national security facility,” says Feaver. “It always adjusts to suit the style and personality of the president and can be executed more quickly and breakthroughly than departments, departments, and sectors. Presidents get the NSC they ask for – good and bad. “