FILE PHOTO: White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon departs after a meeting about the American Health Care Act on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S. March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Steve Holland and John Walcott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump removed his chief strategist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council on Wednesday, reversing his controversial decision early this year to give a political adviser an unprecedented role in security discussions.
Trump's overhaul of the NSC, confirmed by a White House official, also elevated General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence who heads all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. The official said the change moves the NSC "back to its core function of what it’s supposed to do."
It also appears to mark a victory for national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who had told some national security experts he felt he was in a "battle to the death" with Bannon and others on the White House staff.
Vice President Mike Pence said Bannon would continue to play an important role in policy and played down the shake-up as routine.
"This is just a natural evolution to ensure the National Security Council is organised in a way that best serves the president in resolving and making those difficult decisions," Pence said on Fox News.
Bannon said in a statement he had succeeded in returning the NSC back to its traditional role of coordinating foreign policy rather than running it. He cited President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, for why he advocated a change.
"Susan Rice operationalised the NSC during the last administration so I was put on NSC to ensure it was 'de-operationalized.' General McMaster has NSC back to its proper function," he said.
Trump's White House team has grappled with infighting and intrigue that has hobbled his young presidency. In recent days, several other senior U.S. foreign policy and national security officials have said the mechanisms for shaping the Trump administration's response to pressing challenges such as Syria, North Korea and Iran still were not in place.
Critics of Bannon's role on the NSC said it gave too much weight in decision-making to someone who lacked foreign policy expertise.
Bannon, who was chief executive of Trump's presidential campaign in the months leading to his election in November, in some respects represents Trump's "America First" nationalistic voice, helping fuel his anti-Washington fervor and pushing for the president to part ways at times with mainstream Republicans.
Before joining the Trump administration, Bannon headed Breitbart News, a right-wing website.
U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, called the shift in the NSC a positive step that will help McMaster "gain control over a body that was being politicized by Bannon's involvement."
"As the administration's policy over North Korea, China, Russia and Syria continues to drift, we can only hope this shake-up brings some level of strategic vision to the body," he said.
SOURCE: STILL INFLUENTIAL
Bannon's removal from the NSC was a potential setback for his sphere of influence in the Trump White House, where he has a voice in most major decisions. But a Trump confidant said Bannon remained as influential as ever.
"He is still involved in everything and still has the full confidence of the president but to be fair he can only do so much stuff," the confidant said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The White House official said Bannon was no longer needed on the NSC after the departure of Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Flynn was forced to resign on Feb. 13 over his contacts with Russia's ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, prior to Trump taking office on Jan. 20.
The official said Bannon had been placed on the NSC originally as a check on Flynn and had only attended one of the NSC's regular meetings.
The official dismissed questions about a power struggle between Bannon and McMaster, saying they shared the same world view.
However, two current national security officials rejected the White House explanation, noting that two months have passed since Flynn's departure.
McMaster, they said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also has duelled with Bannon and others over direct access to Trump; the future of deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland, a former Fox News commentator; intelligence director Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Flynn appointee; and other staffing decisions.
Trump is preparing for his first face-to-face meeting on Thursday and Friday with Chinese President Xi Jinping with the threat of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs a key component of their talks.
Bannon's seat on the NSC's "principals' committee," a group that includes the secretaries of state, defence and other ranking aides, was taken by Rick Perry, who as energy secretary is charged with overseeing the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.
(Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Tom Brown, Bill Trott and Michael Perry)