The abrupt withdrawal of a top Trump National Security Council appointee and the dozens of high-level personnel holes across key foreign policy and defense agencies have national security experts posing a dark question: Will Donald Trump be ready to manage a national security crisis from Day One?
Sources close to the transition describe Trump’s national security staffing as a “black box,” leaving everyone from Obama officials to Trump job seekers to foreign diplomats guessing at who will land crucial positions shaping policy and managing crises.
Much of the speculation focuses on the NSC, which plays the vital role of coordinating foreign policy and national security within the White House. NSC aides refine and advise the president on competing policy options generated throughout the federal government.
But the Trump team has also not yet announced any appointments below the cabinet level for the Departments of State or Defense, leaving many more important posts open days before Trump’s inauguration.
“This isn’t getting attention it deserves. Who will run and implement policy? Right now there is a big vacuum,” Max Boot, a military historian and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted Tuesday.
With outsiders impatient for Trump to be filling NSC jobs, a new vacancy appeared on the staff chart when Fox News commentator and author Monica Crowley withdrew Monday from her planned appointment as deputy national security adviser for strategic communications amid a plagiarism scandal.
The NSC staffing process is being controlled closely by Trump’s national security advisor-designate, Michael Flynn, who, unlike his past several predecessors, has no NSC experience. Flynn’s deputy, K.T. McFarland, served as a typist and a research assistant at the NSC in the Nixon and Ford White Houses, before working as a speechwriter and public affairs official in the Reagan Pentagon.
Former NSC aides say that Flynn and McFarland will need seasoned senior-level experience as early in their tenure as possible.
“Unlike State, which can rely on its bureaucracy, the NSC has to be ready on Day One as most of its old team leaves,” said Philip Gordon, who held senior NSC jobs in the Obama and Clinton White Houses. “In a normal world, even before a single presidential phone call or meeting or decision the NSC team would prepare background, points, facts, etc. They will not have a team ready to do that.”
“But it’s not clear Trump operates that way or would use any of the stuff anyway,” Gordon added.
Also at issue — and perhaps contributing to the staffing delays — is the NSC’s size and shape itself, which also become a topic of Washington debate. The council grew to 400 staff at its height under Obama’s tenure before being slimmed down, as other departments and officials outside the White House complained that it had too much centralized control.
Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said in a Tuesday statement that NSC staff has been cut by 15 percent over the last two years, to 180, and that “size and structure will have a real-world impact on the advice given to the President, and whether the development and implementation of policy is properly coordinated across the U.S. Government.”
One problem driving Trump’s personnel shortage, sources said, is that the Trump team is limited by its refusal to hire from the many dozens of foreign policy veterans who signed letters opposing the mogul during the presidential campaign. Trump aides have also said they are trying to avoid choosing from the usual pool of Washington insiders with deep foreign policy experience situated at think tanks.
Crowley’s main duties would have included speech writing and press management, and it is unclear what role she might have played in policymaking. But most of the NSC’s key policy jobs are also open. They include senior directors handling such regions and issues as the Middle East, Russia, Afghanistan, economic sanctions and nuclear proliferation.
Those directors oversee the bulk of the NSC staff most of them career government officials on loan from other departments and agencies.
Sources who have had contact with Trump’s national security transition team said it has been tight-lipped about its staffing. “Very few people really know anything about lower-level appointments,” said one person in the mix for a job. “Those who do know aren’t talking, and those who are talking don’t know anything.”
That has left Washington and foreign capitals unsure whether Trump’s team will be slow to materialize, or whether appointments have been made but are not announced.
Many national security veterans believe the former. “I know a huge number of people who are in limbo,” said one conservative foreign policy activist.
Another said that Trump aides are narrowing their list of candidates for key jobs, but that “there’s an internal war over how to fill them and who gets them.”
Trump transition officials did not respond to requests for comment, including about whether more appointments might be imminent.
Trump has made one other NSC appointment, tapping retired General Keith Kellogg to be NSC chief of staff. And some reports indicate that Matt Pottinger, a former Wall Street Journal China correspondent who joined the U.S. Marines and grew close to Flynn, may become the NSC’s director for Asia.
One leading candidate for the NSC’s top Afghanistan-Pakistan job, according to a source, is Derek Harvey, a retired U.S. Army colonel who worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency with Flynn and is close to retired General David Petraeus. Like Flynn, Harvey has questioned the effectiveness of traditional U.S. intelligence gathering against Islamic radicals.
In December, Trump also chose former George W. Bush White House official Tom Bossert as assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism—a job that will move from its current place within the NSC structure to become independent. Bossert, a deputy homeland security adviser during Bush’s last year in the White House, has a background in cybersecurity and infrastructure protection.
But some sources are deeply concerned that Trump’s incoming team lacks experience with national security crises at the federal level. In 2009, Obama’s team included a former White House chief of staff, Leon Panetta, as CIA director; a former State Department chief of staff, Thomas Donilon, as deputy national security advisor; and former CIA chief of staff John Brennan as counterterrorism advisor. Obama also kept on George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.
Several of Trump’s national security appointees, including Flynn, have strong military backgrounds—but limited experience in coordinating with other senior government officials in a time of crisis. McFarland last served in government more than 30 years ago. Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson has no prior government experience. Nor does Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
At the moment, the team’s heavyweight is Trump’s pick for defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, who led U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013.
To help the Trump team prepare for the worst, on Saturday the Obama White House held an emergency-management exercise with nearly two-dozen Trump appointees, including Flynn, McFarland, Mattis, and Trump’s nominees for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo, and for Director of National Intelligence, Sen. Dan Coats.
But that exercise focused on natural disasters, and not the type of catastrophic terrorist attack that some fear could strain an understaffed Trump team.