WASHINGTON — Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain bucked US President Donald Trump, yet again, to say he wants the Joint Chiefs chairman to retain a seat on the National Security Council (NSC).
"The chairman, according to law, is the principal military adviser to the president, so of course he should be in there," McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters Tuesday.
The SASC's top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, has strongly condemned the elevating of White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon on the principals committee and sidelining the Joint Chiefs chairman and the director of national intelligence as "outrageous and potentially dangerous."
"I think there's two aspects here: Bannon's addition and the exclusion of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, so you're losing a military, nonpartisan professional and gaining someone who is more of a political operative than a national security expert," Reed said.
Trump on Saturday signed a memorandum that restructured the NSC, adding Bannon to the principals committee — an unprecedented step — and relegated the Joint Chiefs chairman and the director of national intelligence to attend only "where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed."
Amid the backlash against the reorganization, White House spokesman Sean Spicer has insisted that there was no real change or downgrade.
Reed conceded that the president has a right to choose his staff. However, he added, without Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, the Joint Chiefs chairman, on the NSC, it becomes an entity without a nonpartisan military voice, and that raises questions when the president lacks of foreign policy and national security experience.
While Reed and McCain both find the changes problematic, they are split over what to do about it. McCain advocated a wait-and-see approach while Reed said he was open to action in the SASC's must-pass annual defense policy bill.
"That's the forum to do it," Reed said. "I think we're evaluating whether a statutory change is in order or not. Last year we made changes in a bipartisan way about the structure of the NSC."
Because the administration reversed course on excluding the director of the CIA as a regular attendee, McCain said he hoped the administration will add the Joint Chief chairman back by itself. The defense policy bill is "the ultimate fall-back position," he said.
"Let's just wait a few days here because they already changed to some degree," McCain said.
McCain has echoed former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who called the reorganization "a big mistake."
Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, is a controversial figure with ties to white nationalist movements. He became the Trump campaign's chief executive over the summer.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.