President Donald Trump on Wednesday (Thursday NZ time) removed controversial White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon from the National Security Council, part of a sweeping staff reshuffling that elevated key military and intelligence officials to greater roles on the council and left Bannon far less involved in shaping the administration's day-to-day national security policy.
Two senior White House officials said Bannon's departure was in no way a demotion and that he had rarely attended meetings since being placed on the council. They and others interviewed for this story asked for anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
Bannon's place on the committee had been a subject of intense controversy when the move was announced in January. National security experts, including a former Obama administration official, characterised it as an elevation of a White House official with no national security experience, even while other national security officials in the administration were included on the NSC only when "issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise" were involved. The White House later added the director of the CIA to the NSC.
The White House strongly disputed that characterisation, saying that Trump chose to change the structure of the committee from the one in place during the Obama administration to reduce the number of meetings that senior intelligence officials were required to participate in, if they did not pertain to their areas of expertise.
Instead, one of the officials said, Bannon was put on the council early in the administration to guide and keep watch over then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was tasked with reshaping the operation. That official and a second official said Bannon did this from afar, attending one or two meetings of the group.
Bannon was there to "de-operationalise" the NSC from its Obama-era setup, the official added, and he feels that has been accomplished with Flynn and his successor H.R. McMaster, and no longer feels the need to be part of the NSC.
"There was a concern when this administration came in that the national security council under the prior administration had grown too large and had taken on operational responsibilities that were not properly its role," the second official said. Bannon was placed on the committee "to help return the NSC to its proper policy coordinating role."
The move followed days of discussions with top aides, including Bannon, about the scope of the adviser's role moving forward and comes as McMaster - a three-star Army general and more traditional voice on security policy - has fully taken control of the council and its operations, according to five officials familiar with the decision.
It is the latest departure in the senior ranks of the White House. Last week, deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh left her post to take on a new role in a pro-Trump outside group, and Flynn was ousted in February after it was revealed that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the transition.
Trump's NSC has also found itself embroiled in the controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 election. The Washington Post reported last week that three officials from the NSC collected and distributed documents to House Permanent Select Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who is investigating contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials during the election. Nunes held a news conference and briefed the president on those documents, which he said suggested that Trump associates were the subjects of incidental and legal surveillance by the Obama administration.
McMaster - who wrote a 1997 book, "Dereliction of Duty" about the importance of presidents receiving candid advice on military and national security policy - has become a rising and blunt force within the White House who has made clear to several top officials and the president that he does not want the NSC to have any political elements and while he understood Bannon's role, it was not necessary for the president to have him there as the NSC was reorganised under McMaster's leadership.
Bannon retains his title and position and remains a confidant of the president who is working closely with other advisers on domestic and foreign policy.
In addition, according to the federal register, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are being restored to the NSC's principal's committee, which was their role in the Obama administration. The director of the CIA has also been added to the principal's committee.