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'NYT' Opinion Writer On 'Vindictive' Trump Firings


We begin today with the ongoing turmoil in Washington over how President Trump conducts foreign policy - conduct that led to his impeachment but resulted in an acquittal. Yesterday, President Trump removed two administration officials from their posts who'd provided damaging testimony - Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who served on the National Security Council, and Gordon Sondland, Trump's ambassador to the EU.

Critics have called the firings clear acts of retribution. They may also be part of a broader strategy to reshape the National Security Council, so writes former Pentagon official John Gans in an opinion piece in The New York Times. He says it is a president's prerogative to make personnel changes, but that these firings are different.

JOHN GANS: Well, I think the two things that sort of make this different is, No. 1, by all accounts, Colonel Lindeman was a model public servant, right? He was a person who did his job well, served honorably, has gotten accolades from people who don't often give accolades - people like the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford and others who have come out - gone out of their way to compliment him and say he's a good public servant.

Changes of personnel have happened in the past. But what worries us here is that by all accounts, Alexander Vindman was a fine public servant. And by all accounts, he did what was right. And so those two things make this an unusual firing and an unsettling one.

MARTIN: If you could just set the table for us, what was the NSC founded to do?

GANS: So the National Security Council staff was created in 1947 in a big law called the National Security Act of 1947 that did a lot of things - created the CIA, the Air Force and other things. But what the National Security Council was supposed to do is just get every - all the big names and foreign policy from the government in one room. The staff was supposed to really just help push the paper. That was the original founding, was support that basic conversation about getting everybody in one room and talking about foreign policy.

MARTIN: And how has it changed over time?

GANS: Over time, the president has taken on a much bigger role in foreign policy. That's because of the growing size of the government, the sort of broader cultural importance placed on the presidency. And just generally speaking, the world has demanded a president to sort of make those decisions up to the minute.

That's sort of been exacerbated in the years after Sept. 11 and the wars after Sept. 11, where presidents were really hands-on managers of those wars and needed big staffs in order to sort of make those daily, almost minute-by-minute determinations and decisions in war.

MARTIN: So the current national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, has said that he thinks the staff is just too large. But you clearly disagree with that. I mean, you call the council dysfunctional. In fact, you have some very strong words in your piece. I mean, you say the dysfunction at the council, which Mr. Flynn's successors, H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, failed to end helped break the government. Why do you say that?

GANS: Well, I think trying to win by force over the NSC and over the government hasn't really worked for Donald Trump. And there's lots of pockets of resistance that have driven him to frustrations. And so what he has basically done is struggled between this disagreement. And rather than try to win over the government or try to convince the government that he's right, he mostly is disengaged from it.

I think the Ukraine example - you know, setting aside matters of impeachment and illegality, it sort of shows you that the president was operating on one Ukraine policy with a few close advisers, and then the rest of the government were operating and pursuing an entirely different policy. They weren't even doing the same things.

And so you sort of see that the government has broken down into two separate policies and two separate parties. And to a degree, that's pure dysfunction. It's really no way to operate a U.S. government that has interests all over the world and many big challenges.

MARTIN: John Gans is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of "White House Warriors: How The National Security Council Transformed The American Way Of War."

Professor Gans, thanks so much for talking to us.

GANS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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