Among President Trump’s closest advisors is Stephen Bannon, a leader of the alt-right movement and co-founder of Breitbart, one of the most popular websites for the ideology. He served as chief executive of Trump’s campaign and now serves as chief strategist to the president. Many critics believe that he’s racist, misogynist, and xenophobic. Bannon, for what it’s worth, denies the validity of attacks Democrats level against him, calling himself an “economic nationalist” in response to critics who called him a “white nationalist.”
A few weeks ago, Bannon was appointed a regular attendee of National Security Council (NSC) meetings. The top-secret advisory board for the president has never regularly featured somebody in a position akin to Bannon’s, dating back to the council’s inception in 1947. A new Democrat-introduced bill would remove the controversial Bannon from the NSC.
What the bill does
H.R. 804, the Protect the National Security Council From Political Interference Act, is one page long. It states that the President may not designate “any individual whose primary or predominant responsibility is political in nature” to become a NSC member or regularly attend their meetings. Bannon’s position is considered “political” in nature, as opposed to such as positions as Secretary of Defense or State.
The bill also contains a “sense of Congress” portion, although not legally binding, which states that it’s the sense of Congress that no limitations should be placed on either the Director of National Intelligence of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the nation’s highest-ranking military officer) in attending NSC meetings. Trump had previously demoted those two positions, currently held by Mike Dempsey and Joseph Dunford respectively, from regularly attending the NSC. Trump has repeatedly expressed skepticism about U.S. intelligence officials.
Introduced by Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL7), a congresswoman first elected this past November, the bill has attracted 127 cosponsors, all Democrats. The bill has not yet received a vote in either the House Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, or Intelligence Committees.
The criticisms against Bannon
Cosponsors, at this point entirely Democrats, contend that Bannon espouses dangerous ideologies and conspiracy theories, exerting too much influence on Trump at the expense of lifelong national security professionals. They point to Bannon’s role as the architect of Trump’s travel ban, which bans travel into the U.S. from residents of seven majority-Muslim countries, which Democrats say inflames foreign tensions and can be used as a terrorist recruiting tool, while several judges have found it unconstitutional.
As John Oliver noted this week on his show Last Week Tonight in his comedic segment about Trump, under Bannon’s leadership of Breitbart, the website published such articles as “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy,” “Racist, pro-Nazi roots of Planned Parenthood revealed,” and “Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage.”
“According to David J. Rothkopf, the author of what has been called the ‘definitive history’ of the NSC, there appears to be no precedent for a political advisor so deeply enmeshed in domestic politics serving as a permanent member of the NSC,” House lead sponsor Murphy said in a statement. “To be sure, presidents should have broad discretion to shape the NSC according to their preferences. However, there should be limits to this discretion, particularly if the proposed changes inject, or could reasonably be perceived as injecting, domestic politics into the process of making national security policy.”
Those proposed limits to presidential discretion on NSC personnel may also be protective, as The New York Times reported that Trump may not have been fully briefed on his executive order promoting Bannon to the NSC.
Bannon’s and Trump’s responses
Trump has placed his trust in Bannon as one of the top architects of White House policy in the opening weeks of the administration. White House press secretary Sean Spicer noted that President Obama’s top political advisor David Axelrod similarly also sat in on some National Security Council meetings, though never as a so-called “permanent member” or at the expense of the Director of National Intelligence or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Neither Trump nor Bannon appear to have commented on this legislation directly, likely to avoid the perception of giving it legitimacy. Its odds of passage are slim to none in the Republican-controlled Congress, although Bannon has made enemies of some congressional Republicans — including Speaker Paul Ryan. whom he once called “the enemy.”