The day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, White House national security adviser Susan Rice gathered her staff for a pep talk.
About a third of the room was crying. Everyone was in shock. Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton, an upset of historic proportions that promised, at a minimum, a period of uncertainty in U.S. foreign policy. Most who joined Rice that day worked for the National Security Council, the White House’s elite group of foreign policy experts. Some were political appointees of President Barack Obama, and there was little question they’d be out of jobs by Inauguration Day. But most were career government staffers, typically detailed to the NSC from other agencies and sworn to serve under any presidential administration in a nonpartisan way. They didn’t know what to expect, but many were uneasy about Trump’s heated rhetoric on the campaign trail — his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, his skepticism of U.S. allies, his calls to dismantle the post-Cold War consensus on global trade.Story Continued Below
Rice said the NSC staffers should give Trump a chance, that he and his team deserved the benefit of the doubt. Their duty was to the country, she reminded them, and they should do whatever it took to help America — and Trump — succeed.
What Rice didn’t — couldn’t — tell these government employees was that the dawn of the Trump administration would be a time of extraordinary personal and professional torment for them; that they’d be asked to make ethically, and legally, dubious decisions while ignoring facts and evidence on basic issues to fit the president’s whims; that they would be vilified as “Obama holdovers” and treated like an enemy within, to the point where some of their lives were threatened; that they’d grow so paranoid they would seek “safe spaces” to speak to each other, use encrypted apps to talk to their mothers, and go on documentation sprees to protect themselves and inform history; that at least one career staffer would cry on the way home from work every night; and that another would call Trump a “dumpster fire” in a farewell message.
When NSC employees today recall the events, they use words like “crazy,” “nausea” and “fear.” Some liken the experience to surviving a traumatic event.
“It was so shocking to see this team come in a blur of chaos, disregarding legality and ethics and showing a deep hostility to the career professionals,” said Jeffrey Prescott, a former senior NSC aide to Obama who kept in touch with staffers who stayed. “Whenever I run into somebody who was there during that period, they still seem shaken and appalled by the experience. And it turned out to be a blueprint for the way the Trump administration planned to govern.”
Traditional NSC staffers believe deeply in what they call the “policy process,” a time-tested way of conducting the foreign and national security policy of the world’s most powerful country. It involves a proper set of meetings, a chance for every agency to weigh in, and a rigorous legal review before the president makes a major decision. The early Trump days had virtually none of that, and the subject matter experts who make up much of the NSC career staff were largely ignored, even shunned. It was a bewildering, even terrifying turn for a group of deeply serious men and women whose work can affect billions of lives.
Now, two years into Trump’s tenure, current and former U.S. officials say they are worried about the long-term damage his administration is still doing to the way such critical decisions are made — with dangerous consequences that are not always easy to perceive. They worry Trump’s presidency has poisoned the relationship between career government staffers and political appointees, threatening the ability of a future president to make decisions based on nonpartisan expertise. Some were relieved after Trump’s first national security adviser, Mike Flynn, was fired; he’s still due for sentencing after getting caught up in the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. And they were heartened that Trump’s second national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, reinstituted traditional processes during his year at the helm, even if Trump disliked them. But because Trump’s current national security adviser, John Bolton, has largely scuttled those procedures, the fears have resurfaced over the past year.
“Making national security policy is really hard. It involves life-and-death decisions. If you’re the president, you should want the very best information and analysis your government has to offer you,” said Joshua Geltzer, who served as a senior director for counterterrorism under Obama and for the first several weeks under Trump. “Process is what gets you that information.”
To reconstruct life at the National Security Council during the early Trump presidency, POLITICO spoke with about three dozen current and former government officials. Many served in the NSC during the first year of the Trump administration, first under Flynn, who lasted less than a month, and then under McMaster. Others held positions in and outside government but were in touch with career NSC staffers. Nearly every person requested anonymity to protect their current jobs and to candidly discuss sensitive matters. Many of the anecdotes described here have not been shared publicly before. And this is the first time, to our knowledge, that any news outlet has tried to tell the complete story of those initial unsettling weeks.
Despite repeated requests, few Trump appointees agreed to be interviewed for this story. But one who did, Tom Bossert, offered a broad defense of the first year and a half at the NSC, which covered his tenure as Trump’s homeland security adviser.
Bossert said every White House office has its palace intrigue, but that for top officials, the priority was making sure the president was happy with the information he was receiving and the staff support he was getting. “No matter what staff disagreements or frustrations, I believe the tenure of General McMaster and myself produced strong national security policy that reflected President Trump’s worldview, and I’m confident that, had he remained, General Flynn and I would have produced the same results,” Bossert said.
Career staffers, however, say the atmosphere was ugly. In those early weeks, they said, their every move was viewed with suspicion from a new leadership prone to believing a “deep state” was out to undermine Trump.
In a particularly telling example, one former NSC staffer recalled informing a Trump political appointee that the administration should re-think a proposed executive order because it could undercut efforts to protect human rights. “I said, ‘This could make the president look really bad,’” the former staffer told POLITICO. The political appointee replied: “The president doesn’t care about the things you care about, and the sooner that you know about it, the better.”
The thin transition
Long before the election, NSC staffers invested huge amounts of time into ensuring a smooth transition between administrations. They prepared binders full of information, from the implications of a change of government in a particular country to when reports on, say, human trafficking must be submitted to Congress. The goal was to help the incoming political appointees, and the president, be ready to go on Day 1.
So they got the material ready and waited. And waited.
With few exceptions, it was several weeks before Trump transition officials showed up to talk. Some didn’t arrive until late December or early January, often holding just one, maybe two meetings with the serving staffers. In several cases, the Trump transition officials who met with NSC staffers never joined the NSC. That meant many NSC staffers had no idea who their immediate bosses would be until a few days before Trump took office.
The NSC employees tried to be understanding: Not even Trump thought he would win, they knew, and his team wasn’t fully prepared to staff the government. Plus, many esteemed Republican national security figures had shunned Trump, thinning the ranks of potential recruits. But over time, as Trump appointees trickled in, something else became clear: The staffers’ transition work had been for nothing.
“We’d done extensive preparation for them. There was absolutely no evidence that any of them had read any of it,” one former staffer said. It was a refrain POLITICO heard repeatedly.
Another former NSC official said that, unlike many of his colleagues, he spent a decent amount of time with Trump transition representatives. Something stood out. “There was more focus on people, management and organizational structure than substantive policy issues,” the former official said. “They were not interested in the material we had prepared. It was more like, ‘Why is this staff organized this way? Who are the personalities? Who are the senior staff? Who are the directors?’” It was unusual and concerning, the former official said.
The patchy transition also led to questions that lingered for months over whether many Trump political appointees had proper security clearances, a highly unusual situation.
In the days immediately following the inauguration, a former Marine intelligence officer named Robin Townley showed up in the offices of the Africa directorate, having been let on the White House grounds by someone in the administration. Townley was expecting to take over the Africa division as a senior director. NSC staffers welcomed him, and soon he was reading their top-secret material. But within days, Townley vanished. A person from the NSC’s resource management section soon arrived to inform career staffers that Townley had lacked a proper security clearance. If they saw Townley again and shared anything remotely sensitive with him, this person warned, they could lose their own security clearances.
It was a terrifying moment for a group whose livelihoods depended on those clearances. “You’re afraid that people are going to look for any excuse to get you fired,” one person caught up in the episode said. “And if you get fired over a security clearance issue, that’s not just getting fired from a job, but it’s your career.”
Illusration by Matt Rota
Townley, whose clearance problems have been chronicled by POLITICO in the past, declined to comment.
‘They’ve got all kinds of cool stuff here’
Flynn, a retired intelligence officer with distinguished tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a stalwart Trump campaign supporter who became the national security adviser while already under suspicion about his links to Russia. The hundreds of NSC staffers who now worked for Flynn kept waiting for him to issue a broad greeting of some kind, even just an email to introduce himself. They heard nothing. It was almost two weeks before Flynn called an all-staff meeting, and only after clamor grew for some institutional facetime. The tone of the gathering was oddly political, several attendees said, with Flynn praising Trump and boasting about the president’s smarts and savvy. Flynn also said the U.S. needed to take a different approach to Russia, viewing it more as a partner than an adversary.
“It didn’t make any sense,” one attendee said. “A lot of us left the room and discussed it afterward in the context of the Russia commentary, and it was like, ‘Wow, did that just happen?’ It seemed as if he was completely naive, at best, to the state of play in big power foreign policy dynamics. He thought Russia wasn’t a problem.”
Despite their growing unease, throughout the two dozen days Flynn served as national security adviser, NSC career staffers tried to keep the policy process running. They convened lower-level meetings and conferred with counterparts across the U.S. government about looming challenges. They also tried to keep Flynn informed of their thinking. But he rarely responded, multiple people told POLITICO. Even senior NSC officials appointed by the president had trouble getting meetings with him. A few said he appeared unwilling to leave Trump’s side. Some directorates kept sending Flynn notes on key issues. “Finally, somebody told us to stop sending stuff because nobody was reading it,” one former staffer recalled.
Flynn sometimes made moves without looping in the relevant lower-level staffers. On Feb. 1, 2017, he held a televised briefing to say the U.S. was “officially putting Iran on notice,” in part over the country’s test-launch of a ballistic missile. Normally, such a momentous warning would follow discussions with NSC career staffers, who would have to prepare for any fallout or follow-up actions. But the Iran directors in the NSC’s Middle East section had maybe an hour’s notice, a person familiar with the incident said — otherwise, they had no idea it was coming. (Via his lawyer, Flynn declined to comment for this story.)
At its core, the NSC-led policy process involves a series of meetings, often starting at the NSC director level, going up to a meeting of deputies from relevant agencies and often ending with a “Principals Committee” meeting. Principals are Cabinet heads and other top officials. The meetings offer players across the government a chance to weigh in and stay in synch. Ultimately, the president makes decisions based on recommendations that emerge from the sessions.
That’s how the NSC has largely worked in the modern era, anyway. As an institution, the NSC was first established in 1947 to help coordinate national security policy across the government. But different presidents have used the body in different ways, tweaking its structure as they see fit. The modern version of the NSC, including its deliberate decision-making process, is often credited to the framework set up under the Republican administration of George H.W. Bush by then-national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, a military man often described as an “honest broker” for giving everyone at the table a fair chance to share their views. Scowcroft took over the NSC a few years after the Iran-Contra scandal badly stained the institution’s reputation. He’s said to have helped restore its stature while instituting some innovations, such as the Principals Committee and the even smaller “Core Group” of top aides to the president. Scowcroft, who endorsed Clinton over Trump in 2016, has described his role as twofold: “The first was to run the system, to make the process work and work efficiently, and provide the president with the perspectives he needed. … My second role was to provide a source of advice to him that was unalloyed by departmental responsibilities and interests.”
Obama’s NSC was widely criticized as being too unwieldy, too micromanaging and too obsessed with process; his initial decision to escalate the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, for instance, came after at least 10 meetings of the president and his national security team.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley, in a statement to POLITICO for this story, nodded to the criticisms of Obama. Trump “inherited a bloated, dysfunctional NSC from the Obama administration that had grossly distorted the balance between agencies and the White House,” Gidley said. “President Trump recognized these issues immediately and corrected them with, among other things, an executive order that restructured and reorganized the NSC so it would better serve the president and the American people.”
But early on under Trump, there seemed to be no meaningful organization at all.
One morning during the first full week of the Trump presidency, an NSC staffer says he received a call from a friend who dealt with military issues, asking him if he knew that the president had given the Pentagon the go-ahead to pursue more raids against terrorists in Yemen. The staffer was confused — the topic was under discussion at the NSC, having been passed on from the Obama administration. But when had the idea of raids in Yemen reached the president? Soon, he found out: Flynn, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and a handful of other officials had raised the subject directly with Trump over a dinner that week and the president had green-lit their plans.
Flynn and other officials, according to reports at the time, felt it was fine to do this because Trump wanted a faster decision-making process when it came to such military strikes. And former and current U.S. officials stress that if Trump, or any president, wants to make a decision this way, it’s largely his prerogative. But later that week, NSC staffers and U.S. officials from other agencies were surprised when they were summoned to a deputies committee meeting on the same topic. “I wondered to myself, ‘Why exactly are we meeting? What are we doing here?’” one attendee recalled. “The decision was kind of made and at the same time these meetings were being had.”
Trump’s dinnertime decision laid the groundwork for a U.S. special operations forces raid against an Al Qaeda terrorist affiliate in Yemen in the immediate days after the deputies’ meeting, on Jan. 29, 2017. The raid went badly, from the crash-landing of one of the U.S. aircraft involved to the lengthy firefight with militants that killed a Navy SEAL and at least a dozen civilians. Looking back, no one is arguing that the raid would have gone any differently had the proper NSC process been followed. But the out-of-whack sequence on a topic of such gravity left many NSC staffers deeply uneasy.
For weeks, career NSC staffers were kept in the dark about how the Trump administration would alter the NSC’s structure; one former official said some jokingly referred to the secret organization chart as “The Manhattan Project.” Other former staffers said the Trump appointees would at times be explicit about not wanting to replicate past decision-making processes, sometimes acting as if it were a way of erasing Obama’s touch when such procedures typically pre-dated him.
It didn’t help that Flynn didn’t truly have full command of the NSC or the interagency process. Technically, Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, held an equal rank to the national security adviser, leaving some NSC staffers feeling like they had to report to two bosses who did not seem at ease with each other. (That unease continued under McMaster, Flynn’s successor.) Then there were the wild-card roles played by people such as Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, and chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, who early on was granted the privilege, unusual for a political adviser, of participating in Principals Committee meetings. Kushner, for his part, seemed to run his own show; he would, for instance, negotiate directly with Mexican officials without telling even senior NSC staff. (Kushner got better about coordinating over time, former NSC staffers noted. A White House official told POLITICO that Kushner has “always meticulously followed protocols” on interactions with foreign leaders.)
One Trump appointee, conservative commentator Sebastian Gorka, would show up at random meetings, even though it was never clear whether he had the proper security clearance, and he would often raise unrelated points. One former White House official recalled Gorka saying such things as, “‘If you look at what Napoleon did …’ and we’d all be like, ‘I don’t even know how to respond to that.’” (Asked for comment, Gorka told a POLITICO reporter, “Take a long run off a short pier, you utter hack.”)
The confusion about who ran what gripped people well beyond the White House. “I’d get calls from ambassadors asking what is going on,” one former NSC official said. “I’d recommend they get to know Flynn, Jared and Bannon individually until we figure out how this all shakes out.”
During the brief Flynn era, NSC staffers were shocked when two men who said they were associates of Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, showed up at NSC offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, wearing badges that indicated someone in the West Wing had let them on the White House grounds. They came with a 10-point plan for how the United States could turn Venezuela’s strongman president, Nicolas Maduro, into a U.S. stooge. The basics, according to people familiar with the incident, were as follows: The U.S. would release two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady who were in prison on drug charges; in exchange, Venezuela would free a young American man it had imprisoned on dubious weapons charges; then, Trump would meet with Maduro and the two would hash out some sort of arrangement where the U.S. would lift sanctions on the country’s kleptocratic government in exchange for unfettered access by American companies to the oil-rich Venezuelan market.
The entire pitch appeared to be “a pretext for this great business opportunity for them,” one person familiar with the incident said.
To prove their bona fides, the men — Gentry Beach and Wadie Habboush — called Venezuela’s foreign minister in front of the NSC staffers, leaving a voicemail, and showed a picture of themselves with Maduro, another person familiar with the episode said. “They pulled out a picture of them hugging Maduro. They were like, ‘Yeah, we were in Venezuela two weeks ago.’ And they were all doing the Trump thumbs-up sign,” the person said. The incident, details of which were first reported by Mic, so rattled the NSC staffers that they immediately reported it to the institution’s legal officers. One of the staffers was so alarmed at what he was being asked to consider that he drafted a resignation letter. The men pitching the idea even managed to get a meeting with Bannon.
Habboush and Beach did not reply to messages from POLITICO. Their plan, however, was not adopted. Even Bannon, known for his unconventional views, was hesitant, and besides, from the start, Trump harbored an antipathy toward Maduro, whom he recently decided to no longer recognize as Venezuela’s president.
Trump often seemed in disbelief that he, of all people, was now occupying such a weighty office. A former staffer recalls being in an informal meeting in Flynn’s office when the president burst into the room. Trump apologized for interrupting but said he wanted to show them something. An aide came in with a framed photo of the 16th president. “Abraham Lincoln. President Abraham Lincoln,” Trump said, according to the ex-staffer. “They’ve got all kinds of cool stuff here.”
‘Bad policy poorly executed’
Some Trump defenders dismiss the concerns about process, saying that too often the resulting policy is a mish-mash of milquetoast bureaucratic ideas.
“The purpose of the NSC is not to make the president conform to the NSC, but to make the federal government enhance the way a president gets to good decisions,” argued James Carafano, a foreign policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank friendly to Trump. “The president is a very outcome-focused guy. He is not worried about winning pretty. He’s just worried about winning. Not only do I think he doesn’t care about the process, he sees the process as potentially an impediment.”
Career staffers at the time knew, of course, that Trump came to the presidency having never served in government. But the president’s unwillingness to delve deep meant tough decisions often were delayed as people were forced to adjust.
At Flynn’s request, the Obama administration had held off on deciding whether to arm Kurdish fighters to help recapture the Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State terrorist group. According to two former NSC staffers, immediately after Trump took office, the NSC staff sent Flynn and his top deputies a detailed memo around 10 pages long that laid out the pros and cons of arming the Kurds, along with every document Trump needed to sign off on a decision. A few weeks passed, and a Flynn deputy told the staffers that what they’d sent up was too long and complicated — could they shorten it? So the staffers cut the memo in half. Days later, a new instruction: Could they cut it down further and turn much of it into graphics? The president preferred pictures. So the NSC staffers, with aid from intelligence officials, devised a graphical version. The issue dragged on anyway; it wasn’t until May that Trump decided to arm the Kurdish fighters.
The former NSC staffers speak of that episode with both disbelief and anger. After all, in early February 2017, after they’d sent up the initial memo, a senior Trump administration official was quoted by The Washington Post as saying the decision on arming the Kurds was delayed because the plan presented had gaps and was the result of “poor staff work.”
“All of us were like, ‘We have no idea where the fuck this is coming from,’” one former NSC staffer said. “If I had to guess, I now wonder if Flynn and his people wanted to buy time. It may have been lengthy staff work, but it wasn’t shoddy staff work.”
Perhaps more than anything, the executive orders Trump issued, or tried to issue, in his first week illustrated the disorder.
New presidents often issue a flurry of executive orders upon taking office — Obama did it — but those actions tend to be about reversing previous orders or otherwise fairly simple directives with long time frames for implementation. By contrast, some of the orders Trump aides sought to push through his first few days were complex, legally murky policy measures affecting numerous constituencies, and they were supposed to take effect rapidly.
On Monday evening, Jan. 23, 2017, the first full business day of the Trump administration, a batch of draft executive orders landed in the inboxes of several NSC career staffers. They included the infamous travel ban, which, among other things, barred from U.S. soil the citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries and temporarily stopped the United States from accepting refugees. That order was a lengthy document, around 3,000 words, with many national security implications. It had clearly been written by a handful of Trump political appointees, some of whom had worked as congressional staffers, and was apparently inspired by Trump’s campaign promise to bar Muslims from the United States.
Typically, an executive order of such immense impact would have undergone weeks, if not months, of NSC-coordinated interagency review. Instead, on that Monday night, former NSC staffers say they were asked to review the travel ban and about half a dozen other draft executive orders in less than a day.
NSC staffers scrambled to slow things down, warning Trump aides that the executive orders could harm U.S. national security. For example, the travel ban covered Iraqis, a move likely to infuriate Iraq’s government, one of America’s top counterterrorism partners. The ban also cast the U.S. refugee resettlement program as a potential terrorist threat, despite next-to-no factual evidence. And it appeared to give preference to non-Muslim refugees, hinting at a potentially illegal religious test.
The political appointees brushed off the warnings, so NSC staffers alerted colleagues in other agencies in hopes that they would speak up and change the debate. They urged that government lawyers get time to weigh the consequences, and they quietly hoped that news of the ban would reach human rights activists and reporters (it did). None of it mattered. Trump signed the travel ban that Friday, spurring nationwide protests and court rulings against it. Ultimately, the Supreme Court upheld a revised, more thoroughly vetted version of the ban.
The executive order episode badly rattled career staffers on several levels. For one thing, they — the nonpartisan experts — had not been consulted before the orders were drafted, and when they finally were, their advice was ignored. It also was the first real indication that some of Trump’s most fiery campaign rhetoric, which many hoped he’d abandon when in office, would translate into policy. Today, several former officials admit they saw the targeting of refugees in particular as malicious. But some also said that if Trump really wanted to bar refugees or citizens from specific countries, they would have helped him do it in a smarter way.
“I’ll never forget the morning I fell apart,” one former staffer said. “I was reading a New York Times article about a refugee named Mustafa. … I just lost it. I was bawling. A few days later, I confessed I’d given a bunch of money to some refugee agency. And everyone around me said, ‘I did, too!’ We just wondered how many thousands of dollars had come from the NSC staff.” The former staffer continued, head shaking in wonder: “These [executive orders] were, like, written in crayon, like The Heritage Foundation intern just came up with them. They just weren’t very good. … It wasn’t just bad policy. It was bad policy poorly executed. I could have done it better.”
Careers vs. politicals
For roughly the first month, NSC career staffers who’d stayed on after Obama kept wearing their old badges, which were a different shade of green than the badges the new political appointees wore; as a result, the politicals treated them with scorn, even excluding them from conversations after looking at their badges. (Eventually, everyone got the newer badges.) Other career staffers say they became objects of suspicion because of language they used, such as saying “undocumented immigrants” instead of “illegals.” One former U.S. official who frequently dealt with the NSC says he stopped taking his print edition of The New York Times to the White House because Trump appointees gave him dirty looks.
The career staffers in the NSC’s Middle East directorate were treated exceptionally badly, numerous current and former government officials said. Their senior director at the time, Derek Harvey, was a Trump appointee who openly mused that the career staffers were closet Democrats and might not be loyal to the new president. He would mention that he’d looked at their Facebook pages to gauge their political leanings; he’d even introduce those staffers to officials from other countries as “Obama holdovers,” thus undermining them with their foreign counterparts.
Career staffers in the Middle East directorate tried to keep their cool, but one incident during the early stretch of the administration prompted a near-revolt, several people interviewed said. The NSC office tasked with writing the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy had sent out a survey to the other directorates. One question asked the directorates to list the biggest obstacles they faced in achieving their goals. Career staffers in the Middle East section were shocked to see that one item listed as an obstacle facing their directorate was, to paraphrase, “Obama holdovers.” Furious staffers confronted Harvey and his top deputies, but they acted like they didn’t know how that answer got there.
A spokesman dismissed the allegations against Harvey.
“This article, like many similar hit pieces on Derek, is part of an orchestrated attempt by disgruntled partisans to smear a staffer, which used to be considered beyond the pale,” said Jack Langer, director of communications for the Republican wing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, where Harvey now is a staffer. “It’s telling that every supposed outrage by Derek is put forward anonymously, by people who cannot be held accountable despite the sheer absurdity of their tales.”
Trump political appointees were believed to frequently talk to journalists who worked for conservative media outlets. For months, those outlets published names of career Civil and Foreign Service officers in the NSC and other government agencies whose loyalties they deemed suspect. Career staffers who had joined the U.S. government many years, sometimes decades, earlier were suddenly cast as Obama loyalists determined to derail Trump’s agenda as part of a “deep state.” The people targeted included a State Department civil servant of Iranian descent who’d joined government under the George W. Bush administration; a highly respected Foreign Service officer who dealt with Israeli issues; and an NSC staffer who dealt with European and Russian issues. The latter, Eric Ciaramella, reportedly left the NSC after receiving death threats. Another staffer targeted by conservative outlets was Fernando Cutz, a Latin America expert and top aide to McMaster; at one point he had to temporarily get police protection. (Cutz was maligned by conservative websites in part because he earned a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service, thus supposedly linking him to another Democratic president.)
The attacks were unprecedented, according to Washington veterans from both parties. Career officials felt betrayed, because it was obvious that the political appointees they worked with every day were leaking misleading information to the conservative press. “It was crazy that we couldn’t trust our own people,” one former staffer said. But the distrust went both ways when it came to leaks. As word reached the media about everything from the executive orders to accounts of Trump’s odd conversations with foreign leaders, the political appointees suspected the career staffers of leaking.
The mood was especially tough for women and minorities. For the most part, the Trump political appointees were white men, a disproportionate number with military backgrounds. It was a sea change from the Obama years, where many women and minorities held key NSC positions. A Muslim staffer found the atmosphere so unbearable, she quit after eight days. A former White House official said it seemed like all the female Trump appointees wore skirts or dresses, so she started doing the same thing. Another woman, a then-NSC career staffer, said many Trump appointees would assume she was a notetaker or a secretary. One day, she was walking down a hall, and there was a woman walking in front of her. A man walking toward them glanced at the woman in front and said, “Well, look at that national treasure.”
Illustration by Matt Rota
When McMaster took over from Flynn, a female staffer sent him an email, which she circulated to others, that urged him to stamp out the sexism. “I hope you would agree,” she wrote to McMaster, “this culture of misogyny threatens the credibility of an organization meant to serve all Americans and further minimizes the already weakened influence of women on the staff.”
‘They created an underground’
The political appointees’ distrust of the career staffers led the latter to take steps they never could have imagined under previous presidents.
Because the policy process was largely broken, officials sought ways to quietly share information with colleagues in other agencies and among themselves just so that the relevant officials would know what was happening. Many downloaded encrypted apps such as Signal and WhatsApp to communicate in what they believed to be an untraceable way — “My mother got on Signal,” one ex-staffer recalled. Some gathered to talk in places deemed “safe spaces,” such as directorates with few or no political appointees. People from across the NSC would head to one of those directorates to use the secured phone lines to call counterparts either to get or share what little information they could. The hallways of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building became zones of intrigue, as did the bathrooms. Atop the building was a small informal “meditation room” where some staffers would go to take a break; a former employee recalls one day walking in the room to find a group of career staffers nervously conferring.
A former NSC staffer came back during the first few months of the Trump administration for another person’s farewell party. When he asked people how they were, at least six individuals declined to say anything in front of others. Instead, each pulled him to a corner near a window. Of the Trump appointees, they would say, “‘These people are incompetent. They literally don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t care to know what they’re doing,’” the person recalled, saying the despondent staffers would add, “‘I don’t know why I’m doing this. Nobody listens to professional advice.’”
Another person who left the NSC before Trump took over said colleagues still serving would reach out to him for career advice and emotional support. “I viewed myself as a psychologist,” he said.
Numerous career staffers decided to document everything they could, what became known as “putting it in the record.” That often meant putting certain ideas and opinions in emails or copying other agencies on communications. Many staffers knew that by including the agencies, the information would more likely be subject to the Freedom of Information Act and could one day see the light of day or even land in history books. Some admit they hoped that people in the agencies would leak the information to reporters. And many acknowledge they wanted a record, somewhere, of themselves objecting to policies they thought could be illegal. One particularly useful tool was the “track changes” feature in shared documents in what is known as the NSC “portal.” Staffers would make sure to use that feature to log in legal or policy concerns they had about language in particular documents, especially if factual errors were involved. Many printed reams of material they could put in their “box” — the package of NSC staffers’ work material that is archived and eventually made available to the public. One person said that although he spent three times longer at the NSC under Obama than under Trump, he had only one “box” for Obama and three for Trump.
The former staffers insist they were right to be paranoid. There were rumors that political appointees had launched an “insider threat” program complete with phone surveillance to ferret out leakers and other allegedly disloyal members of a “deep state.” There also were reports of blacklists of career staffers whom political appointees wanted to fire. Career staffers grew antsy about whether their cellphones were being used to spy on them; some left the devices at home.
One former staffer recalled being near a colleague when deciding to click on a New York Times website story that dealt with the investigation into Trump’s Russia ties. “I was like, ‘Wow, look at that’ — click,” the ex-staffer said. The colleague, however, panicked and said, “‘Oh, you shouldn’t have just done that! They’re tracking who clicks the most quickly on the stories!’”
Who knew if that was true, but it underscored the tenor of the times.
In their furtive reactions — the quiet meetings in safe spaces, the documentation sprees — were the career staffers becoming the very “deep state” that Trump appointees claimed existed?
Illustration by Matt Rota
It is a question several people interviewed have pondered but ultimately determined that the answer is no. They insist that, unlike a “deep state,” they weren’t trying to thwart the president’s objectives; they just wanted to restore the policy process so his decisions were vetted and on solid legal ground. In many cases, the lack of communication from Flynn and others forced them to quietly turn to others just to find out basic information. One former staffer, knowing his advice was deemed suspect because of his “holdover” status, said he became so desperate to make sure the political appointees had reliable information that he asked non-government experts to come in and brief them, hoping that they’d be listened to if he was not. “I would go whole days where I would barely speak to them,” he said.
“What we did was our job!” another former NSC staffer said. “They can call us whatever they want, but I don’t believe that we became a deep state. We were professional and doing our job.”
“It wasn’t a deep state,” added a third ex-staffer. “It was like they created an underground.”
It was also emotionally exhausting, even by the standards of people who’ve worked in war zones and tried to stop genocides. Under Flynn, one NSC staffer at the time recalls sobbing on the way home every night. Others took up yoga or cooking. Some put on their office walls pictures of personal heroes as inspiration. Many found their work so ignored that they stopped putting in the typical 12- to 16-hour days and went home early. And just about everyone drank more.
One ex-staffer recalled listening to “How Far I’ll Go,” a song from the animated film “Moana.”
“I remember being in my office, with whisky, and crying when hearing this song,” he said.
McMaster’s arrival was a huge morale booster for the embattled career staffers, but even he struggled to maintain order and reduce the paranoia. His tense relationship with the president didn’t help, either.
The lieutenant general took the NSC’s reins days after Flynn’s mid-February 2017 ouster, and he quickly held a town hall where attendees say he emphasized that he wanted and appreciated the input of the nonpartisan career staffers. He warned against the use of the term “Obama holdover” and soon reinstituted the traditional meetings that made up the interagency policy process. He also engineered Bannon’s removal from the list of people included in NSC Principals Committee meetings, an effort McMaster supporters described as a bid to depoliticize national security decisions. McMaster also told NSC staffers to feel free to approach him directly about their concerns, and many did.
For these actions, McMaster earned enemies among the political appointees. Conservative media writers soon began posting stories that suggested Trump was unhappy with McMaster and annoyed by the policy process the national security adviser re-instituted (which turned out to be true). Some far-right activists accused McMaster of being anti-Israel. Many of the leaks are believed to have come from Bannon and his allies. In particular, McMaster drew criticism for his largely successful efforts to convince Trump that the U.S. should not withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Bannon, who did not reply to a request for comment, was highly skeptical of America’s continued presence in the country, a skepticism Trump shares.
Still, by fall 2017, McMaster, who declined to comment for this story, had managed to rid himself of many of his fiercest detractors, including Harvey. Bannon and Gorka, too, were forced out of the administration.
What McMaster couldn’t change was the president himself. It didn’t matter what facts, evidence or guidance McMaster and his NSC staffers offered Trump; the president often ignored the information. And some of Trump’s top aides were willing to enable him.
In the days ahead of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first visit to the White House during the Trump presidency, in March 2017, NSC career staffers were told the president wanted to tell Merkel that other NATO countries owed the U.S. money. Could they prepare a report on the topic? Career NSC staffers got to work and returned with the basics: that NATO countries don’t owe the United States money because that’s not how the military alliance works; that every NATO country is supposed to spend at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense, and that while many had fallen short of that commitment, others met it or were on track to do so. In short, no one “owed” the United States anything.
NSC career staffers presented this information to a senior administration official in the West Wing. According to one of them, the official replied: “The president is going to say it anyway, so we need to help him. I mean, it’s not a legal document.”
The career staffers were flummoxed.
“It was the weird disregard for facts that made it offensive,” one of the then-staffers said. “They said, ‘Never mind all that, he’s going to do it anyway so give us stuff that helps the case.’ It was frightening, in a way.” The then-staffer said he refused to contribute further: “I didn’t want to lie.”
Perhaps more than anything, that disdain for facts by the president and many of his senior aides still grates on the career staffers who served at the NSC. As one departing NSC staffer put it in a farewell message to colleagues, obtained by POLITICO, Trump was a “dumpster fire” and they needed to “keep standing firm in the face [of] immoral men seeking to tarnish the legitimacy of your work to advance a proscribed political agenda designed to serve and appeal to only the most wretched and fearful among us.”
Trump fired McMaster in March 2018, replacing him as national security adviser with John Bolton, a hawkish former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Although Bolton is famed for his knowledge of government bureaucracy, he has reverted in many ways to the Flynn model at the NSC. He rarely holds Principals Committee meetings, and, despite being in the job for nearly a year, he has yet to hold a town hall. His apparent disregard for the policy process, combined with Trump’s improvisational style, has fueled incoherence on several issues. It’s still not entirely clear, for instance, how, whether or when the U.S. will withdraw its troops from Syria, despite the president’s surprise announcement in mid-December that such a move is imminent.
“The outcome now is an NSC of one: Bolton,” a former NSC official said.
A Bolton spokesman dismissed the concerns, saying in a statement: “As Ambassador Bolton has mentioned repeatedly, streamlining the structure of the National Security Council to efficiently keep America safe will continue to be a priority for this administration.” When asked to clarify if he meant “process” instead of “structure,” the spokesman replied via email, “Structure helps define process.”
The situation now is giving flashbacks to people who worked for Trump’s NSC in its early days. Looking back, many say that, despite the intense pressures they faced, they are glad they followed Susan Rice’s advice and stuck around to help the new administration, even if they were vilified and ignored. When asked whether, in looking back, she was glad she offered that advice, Rice told POLITICO: “I generally encourage people to join and remain in public service and continue to serve our country to the best of their abilities. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.”
One recent example of those high stakes, noted Tom Donilon, Rice’s predecessor as national security adviser under Obama: Trump’s meeting this week with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which ended in failure. “A summit with these stakes (the president flying halfway around the world to address one of the most difficult security questions) would be subject to scenario planning in the interagency process,” wrote Donilon in an email, observing that more generally, “the summit was clearly not adequately prepared.”
Among NSC watchers, there’s a sense of relief that no major national security crisis occurred during those first several hectic weeks. The question now, many say, is whether America’s foreign policy machine under Bolton is functional enough to handle a major surprise.
“If you don’t have process, then when a crisis happens you’re not going to be able to pull the right people together for a coherent response,” said Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who now leads the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “And in this administration, all the crises that we’ve had so far have been self-inflicted. We haven’t had one from the outside.”
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