Rep. Peter Welch and Sen. Patrick Leahy are backing legislation in Congress that would reverse some of the unprecedented and controversial changes President Donald Trump has made to the National Security Council.
Shortly after taking office in January, Trump gave his political advisor, former Breitbart executive Steve Bannon, a permanent seat on the National Security Council. At the same time, the Trump administration downgraded the involvement of the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff – two of the nation’s top military and intelligence officials – so that they would attend meetings only when "issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed," according to the White House explanation of the changes.
The moves drew criticism from members of Congress, including Welch, who raised concerns that Bannon was bringing political considerations into decisions about national security – a potential conflict of interest that previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have taken steps to avoid.
Welch says the legislation he’s co-sponsored, now before the House Intelligence Committee, would require the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be a permanent member of the National Security Council.
Speaking on Vermont Edition Thursday, Welch acknowledged that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is chosen by the president, but said he isn’t concerned about political influence in that case.
“That’s a person whose oath is to focus entirely on our national security, and not the political repercussions of giving the best advice to the president,” Welch said.
Asked if he believes the legislation can make it through a Republican-controlled Congress, Welch wasn’t optimistic.
“No, I don’t,” he said. “But I think we’ve got to introduce it. We’ve got to fight it, we’ve got to promote it, we’ve got to expose this.”
Welch said public exposure of the issue will help turn public opinion, including in Vermont. Faced with a choice about who should be in the room when national security decisions are made, Welch said, “every Vermonter’s going to say, ‘Well, the security person should be there, not the politician.’ So part of this legislation, even though they’ve got the votes and we don’t, is to expose this argument.”
Welch added that a number of Republicans in Congress are also “unsettled” by Trump’s changes to the National Security Council.
Sen. Bernie Sanders has called on Trump to remove Bannon from the council, though his office did not respond to requests for comment about his support for legislation to reverse Trump's changes.
Steve Bannon sitting on the National Security Council is dangerous and unprecedented. He must be removed.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 30, 2017
Sen. Patrick Leahy said in an interview that he is concerned that Bannon’s presence on the council will make military and intelligence officials less comfortable sharing information freely in meetings.
According to The Intercept, there is also a bill in the Senate designed to reverse some of Trump’s changes to the National Security Council. Leahy said in an interview Thursday that he is a co-sponsor of that bill.
“I’ve talked with a lot of people from Republican administrations and Democratic administrations who are just shocked to think that a political appointee, especially one with Steve Bannon’s background, would be on the National Security Council,” Leahy said. “When at the same time, the White House says, ‘Well, we’re not going to need the director of national intelligence, we don’t need the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, except on an ad hoc basis.'”
Leahy said he doesn’t think anyone involved in sensitive security issues in past presidential administrations would agree with that decision.
“It’s just wrong,” Leahy said. “It’s like you’re playing with a television show, not that you’re playing with the life and death of Americans.”