National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s future in the Trump administration looks increasingly uncertain, and now the New York Times reports that in addition to potentially breaking the law by discussing U.S. sanctions with with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December, he’s also doing a poor job of managing the National Security Council.
Beyond the drama surrounding Flynn personally, the latest leaks — which come from more than two dozen current and former NSC staffers — paint a frightening picture of the Trump administration’s approach to national security matters. “It’s so far a very dysfunctional NSC,” Representative Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told the paper.
Unrest within the NSC is not unusual in the beginning of a president’s term, but this is different. Hundreds of career civil servants work for the NSC, and many left because they didn’t want to work for the Trump administration. The Times reports that the remaining staffers see the job as apolitical, so they’ve been troubled by their new bosses’ behavior, from bringing Trump mugs into meetings with foreign officials, to Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland telling them they need to “make America great again,” to White House senior adviser Stephen Miller acting as chairman during a meeting of the national security deputies.
Many Trump appointees are former members of the military, and last week Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly looked into whether the Navy could board an Iranian ship to look for weapons it may be transporting to Houthi fighters in Yemen. Some questioned whether it was legal or prudent to risk a possible clash with the Iranian military — particularly in light of the controversy surrounding the recent raid in Yemen — and the plan was scrapped once news of the possible operation leaked.
In other instances, the Trump team’s military experts weren’t as up on government procedure as one would think. Per the Times:
Two people with direct access to the White House leadership said Mr. Flynn was surprised to learn that the State Department and Congress play a pivotal role in foreign arms sales and technology transfers. So it was a rude discovery that Mr. Trump could not simply order the Pentagon to send more weapons to Saudi Arabia — which is clamoring to have an Obama administration ban on the sale of cluster bombs and precision-guided weapons lifted — or to deliver bigger weapons packages to the United Arab Emirates.
Flynn is also said to be unclear on how to call up the National Guard in an emergency. And aides say he’s (understandably) worried about a “shadow council” created Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, who the paper notes “sees the United States as headed toward an inevitable confrontation with two adversaries — China and Iran.”
Unsurprisingly, President Trump is reportedly generating plenty of chaos himself. As previously reported, the president prefers memos to be kept to a single page, with bullet points. Now the Times reports that the page is also supposed to include many graphics and maps. “The president likes maps,” explained one official.
NSC staffers are also having difficulty making sense of the president’s wishes. Many do not know what is said during phone calls with foreign leaders, and the Times reports that “council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them.” Two officials said there was talk of composing suggested tweets for the president in an effort to keep him in line with their foreign-policy efforts.
But don’t take the NSC leakers’ word for it; there’s also a disturbing new account from people dining at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday night. They say they got to watch Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe figure out how to respond to North Korea’s latest provocation as the pair ate iceberg wedge salads on the terrace of the president’s Florida club.
After spending the day golfing with the Japanese leader, President Trump answered a call about North Korea’s ballistic missile test on a mobile phone, as the leaders were seated in the middle of the private club’s dining area with their wives. CNN reports:
As Mar-a-Lago’s wealthy members looked on from their tables, and with a keyboard player crooning in the background, Trump and Abe’s evening meal quickly morphed into a strategy session, the decision-making on full view to fellow diners, who described it in detail to CNN.
… Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and chief strategist Steve Bannon left their seats to huddle closer to Trump as documents were produced and phone calls were placed to officials in Washington and Tokyo.
The patio was lit only with candles and moonlight, so aides used the camera lights on their phones to help the stone-faced Trump and Abe read through the documents.
Even as a flurry of advisers and translators descended upon the table carrying papers and phones for their bosses to consult, dinner itself proceeded apace. Waiters cleared the wedge salads and brought along the main course as Trump and Abe continued consulting with aides.
The article notes that many of Mar-a-Lago’s paying members “view dinner at the club as an opportunity for a few seconds of face time with the new president.” Now people may join the club in the hopes of sitting in on high-level strategy meetings, as Chelsea Clinton pointed out:
But who’s reading the former first daughter’s Twitter late on Sunday night? Has anyone thought of plugging these new perks for Mar-a-Lago members from the White House briefing room?