President Donald Trump moved to reorganize his National Security Council, implement a lobbying ban for political appointees once they leave his administration, and order the Pentagon to create a plan to defeat the Islamic State terror organization.
Trump signed the initiatives in the Oval Office on Saturday, the latest in a cavalcade of directives this week that included banning travelers from seven countries that the president said breed terrorism, building a wall along the Mexican border, and seeking ways to restrain implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Saturday’s orders capped a foreign policy-heavy day for the new president, who spoke with five national leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
During Trump’s campaign, he promised to “drain the swamp” of influence-peddling in Washington. While the executive order isn’t intended to prevent people who’ve worked as lobbyists from serving in the administration, it would tie their hands after they depart. Administration officials would be barred from lobbying for five years once they exit, and be permanently restricted from lobbying on behalf of foreign governments, according to text of the order.
“Most of the people standing behind me will not be able to go to work,” Trump quipped during a signing ceremony in the Oval Office. “So you have one last chance to get out.”
None of Trump’s cabinet picks were lobbyists, but administrations often draw from K Street firms for lower-ranking positions. Jeffrey H. Walker, a lobbyist with Balch & Bingham LLP for Southern Co., was named acting assistant attorney general for the environment on Monday, according to a post on the Justice Department website. Walker lobbied Congress on proposed legislation on nuclear power, according to disclosure forms filed with the Senate.
Several lobbyists were also tasked during the transition with overseeing Trump’s hiring and planning for some federal agencies, according to a Washington Post report in November. The newspaper said they included J. Steven Hart, chairman of the law and lobbying firm Williams & Jensen; Michael McKenna, who’s worked for energy companies and was assigned to planning for the Energy Department; and Dallas fundraiser Ray Washburne, assigned to the Commerce Department. Trump met with Washburne during the transition, including at the annual Army-Navy football game in Baltimore.
A senior administration official who requested anonymity to discuss the order before it was signed said the intention was to prohibit people from profiting off their government service in the future — not to keep lobbyists out of the administration.
The pledge that administration officials will be required to sign also prohibits accepting gifts from lobbyists. Officials found to have violated the pledge after leaving the administration may be barred from lobbying activities for an additional five years, and referred to the Justice Department for investigation.
Trump’s order on Saturday — that the Joint Chiefs of Staff should develop a plan within the next 30 days to eliminate the Islamic State — is also the fulfillment of a campaign promise. It’s unclear how or whether the strategy would deviate from the Obama administration’s efforts, which has involved deploying U.S. special forces, supplying and equipping local armies, and a coalition air campaign.
“I think it’s going to be very successful,” Trump said during the signing ceremony. He also said that Friday’s executive order suspending refugee resettlements and barring entry to people from seven Middle East nations was “not a Muslim ban” and was “working out very nicely” at airports around the country.
One possibility is the establishment of so-called safe zones within Syria, a policy shunned by Obama, who argued they were too costly and put U.S. forces in harm’s way. Trump said this week in an interview with ABC News that he planned to create such havens. A provision ordering the Pentagon to study their feasibility was in a draft version of an executive order regarding refugee immigration from the Middle East that was obtained by Bloomberg. But that element was absent from the final version Trump signed on Friday.
Trump’s move to reorganize the National Security Council could also have implications for how he receives and processes intelligence. The group, which works as a sort of clearinghouse for information within the White House, almost doubled in size under the Obama administration, though former National Security Adviser Susan Rice worked during her tenure to pare it back.
Ban the Bloat
Flynn’s successor in the Trump administration, Michael Flynn, has considerable influence with the new president, appearing by his side at almost every national-security related event.
Saturday’s move was designed, an administration official said, to cut down on national security meetings the new administration saw as unproductive. The memo, which designates which officials are expected to attend certain meetings, is designed to streamline the decision-making process and cut down on bloat, the official said.
“We’ve been talking about doing this a long time. Like, many years,” Trump said.
The order also makes changes to the composition of the principals committee, the senior-level inter-agency group that considers major national security policy issues.
Stephen Bannon, Trump’s senior counselor and the former editor of Breitbart News, will now have a permanent seat with the group. But the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who both had permanent spots on the committee under President Obama, will now attend “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed,” according to the memo.
During the weeks after Trump was elected, reports emerged that Flynn had advocated minimizing the role of the DNI, which was created to better coordinate intelligence agencies after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Joint Chiefs role is similar to how former President George W. Bush organized his National Security Council.