in mid-March, General McMaster tried to fire Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council. Mr. Cohen-Watnick, a holdover from Michael Flynn’s aborted stint as national security adviser, complained to Mr. Bannon and Jared Kushner, who prevailed on Mr. Trump to have him reinstated.
The idea that the 30-year-old Mr. Cohen-Watnick should be senior director for intelligence programs — a position held by senior career C.I.A. officers in the Obama administration and others — is dubious. Furthermore, General McMaster’s decision to get rid of Mr. Cohen-Watnick was well within his pay grade.
.. A few days after his reinstatement, Mr. Cohen-Watnick was one of three White House staffers who facilitated a briefing to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes on the “incidental surveillance” of Trump campaign staff members, which Mr. Nunes used to distract news media and public attention from the committee’s investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
A little unpacking revealed how artlessly pretextual this distraction was: Mr. Nunes professed the need to learn new information about surveillance to warn the president, yet that very information was in the possession of the White House and accessible to Mr. Trump without Mr. Nunes’s intervention.
.. One defensible inference is that Mr. Trump wanted to keep a pliable ally as the White House’s principal liaison with the intelligence community.
To arrange Mr. Trump’s reversal of General McMaster’s dismissal of Mr. Cohen-Watnick, Mr. Bannon required no formal position on the National Security Council. Indeed, Mr. Cohen-Watnick’s other inside patron — Mr. Kushner — had no such position.
.. Rex W. Tillerson blithely channeled buzz phrases like “win-win solutions” and “mutual respect” in describing United States-China relations. The phraseology seemed to signal United States capitulation to China’s sphere-of-influence geopolitical stance
.. Matt Pottinger, the senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, had warned in a memo against using such language. The fact that no one seems to have paid him any heed suggests how little the council matters in the Trump White House.
.. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, implied it would be “silly” to advocate regime change due to the absence of practical alternatives. The next day, Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, in an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, struck a very different chord by condemning the regime and saying that the United States could take unilateral action should the Security Council fail to respond effectively. (Mr. Trump then dialed up his own language, saying his attitude toward Syria had “changed very much.”)
In each case, the stated position of one national security player did not mesh with that of another.
Among the National Security Council’s key tasks is to help the president arrive at a consensus on a given foreign policy issue by soliciting the views of different agencies and orchestrating compromises in formulating a clear and integrated approach.
.. And perhaps a lack of policy coordination is just the way it is in the Trump administration. But if that is the case, the situation calls into question the National Security Council’s very utility.
But for the institution to have real value, regardless of who the players are, Mr. Trump himself needs to respect it more than he apparently does.