Robert O’Brien: National Security Council reforms – President Trump has made people safer, nation stronger

Over the past nine months, little-noticed but important changes have taken place at the National Security Council (NSC) under President Trump’s leadership. The NSC has been restored to its historic and intended role and key reforms have resulted in an important series of national security accomplishments for the American people.

The National Security Council was established in 1947 to “advise the president with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” The word “advise” is important. While the principal members of the Council – the secretary of defense and the secretary of state, for instance, oversee executive branch departments that execute foreign policy – the NSC staff at the White House advises the president and coordinates policy.

The National Security Council assists the president by ensuring that he receives the best views and options from the various departments and agencies on any given issue. The ultimate policies are, as they should be, then decided upon by the president – not by the NSC staff or the national security adviser. Thereafter, the NSC ensures that the departments and agencies actually execute the president’s decisions.

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This “honest broker” role for the National Security Council was best implemented by Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served as the national security adviser during both the Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush administrations. The “Scowcroft Model” recognizes – and embraces – the unique but necessarily modest place the National Security Council and the national security adviser occupy in the American national security architecture.

While some national security advisers have eschewed the Scowcroft Model and sought to “operationalize” the NSC or pursue their own policy agendas without regard to the cabinet, the president and the country are best served by the NSC’s adherence to its intended “honest broker” advisory role.

Prior to President Trump taking office, the NSC policy staff grew dramatically in size. It became more bureaucratic and bloated, and began to resemble a miniature State Department, Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security. In certain cases, over past years, NSC staffers even attempted to issue orders to our diplomats and military personnel. At President Trump’s direction, over the last nine months, we have restored the NSC to its historical mission, making it more efficient and effective.

First, we reduced the size of the NSC policy staff, from nearly 175 in September 2019, to roughly 115 today. We expect to reach our end-goal of 105 policy staffers by this fall. Our streamlining of the staff has simplified decision-making and restored accountability within the NSC.

Recent accomplishments were driven by an NSC process that was inclusive of the departments and agencies, leading to strong presidential decisions. 

For historical reference, President John Kennedy’s NSC served him with just 12 staffers during the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Jimmy Carter’s NSC consisted of 35 policy professional professionals. With two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan underway, President George W. Bush’s first term NSC had 100 policy staff. Under President Barack Obama, however, the NSC policy staff ballooned to over 240 personnel.

President Trump’s NSC team is now less than half that size. Having created a lean and nimble organization, we are better positioned to deliver results. During this streamlining process we reached an historic milestone. Today, half of the NSC’s 24 senior directors are women. At a time when many public company boards are struggling to include more women as directors, President Trump is leading the way at the NSC.

Second, we have returned effective process to the NSC. In President Trump’s view, the department and agency officials need to meet – generally in person – to consider, debate and discuss the important issues and policies of the day. This process is dynamic and leads to better options and counsel for the president.

In order to provide such considered counsel, develop options, reach consensus and drive action, we need the right people in the room.  We thus require the actual principals (cabinet secretaries and agency heads) to attend principals committee meetings. Their deputies must attend deputies committee meetings. This protocol may not sound novel, but the practice had been abandoned for many years. Since September 2019, we have coordinated over 130 principals and deputies committee meetings on myriad issues.

This month’s sanctioning of International Criminal Court officials for attempting to prosecute, without any legitimate authority, U.S. servicemen and women is just the latest result of an effective NSC process. The NSC brought the Departments of State, Defense and Justice, and the intelligence community together to develop recommendations to take to the president. He, in turn, issued an executive order that protects American sovereignty.

Other objectives over the past months, such as taking ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi off the battlefield, restoring deterrence against Iran by striking the Quds Force, and eliminating Al Qaeda’s respective leaders in Afghanistan, Algeria, Yemen and Syria all resulted from a robust NSC process leading to decisive presidential action.

Additionally, the United States signed a peace agreement in Afghanistan, withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty to which Russia was not adhering, enacted comprehensive policies to check China for the first time in 40 years, ended U.S. membership in the corrupt World Health Organization, and brought home a number of hostages, including Xiyue Wang and Michael White from Iran and Professors Kevin King and Timothy Weeks from Afghanistan. President Trump also saved countless American lives with his early ban on foreign national travel to the United States from China at the outset of the global COVID-19 pandemic.


Again, these accomplishments were driven by an NSC process that was inclusive of the departments and agencies, leading to strong presidential decisions.

Many of these presidential priorities had languished in the bureaucratic pipeline prior to President Trump’s reforms of the NSC. President Trump’s efforts have made the American people safer and our nation stronger.