Bannon Wins, as Navy Officer Rejects National Security Advisor Job

Dan De Luce
Robert Harward bowed out after Trump rejected his request to pick his own team.
Robert Harward bowed out after Trump rejected his request to pick his own team.

Retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward has rejected President Donald Trump’s offer to serve as national security advisor after the White House reportedly refused his request to pick his own team, dealing an embarrassing setback to the administration.

The former Navy SEAL’s decision to turn down the prestigious job highlights how Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, has entrenched himself as a powerful figure in the White House, wielding influence over every aspect of decision-making.

In one of the president’s first executive orders after taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, Bannon — with no experience in government and an isolationist, anti-internationalist agenda — was granted a permanent seat on the National Security Council. The order was an unprecedented move for a body that is supposed to steer clear of political considerations.

In any other White House, Harward’s request to have a say over who served on his staff would have been routine, former officials said. But Trump and his aides have been deeply reluctant to delegate power to outsiders who have no ties to the president’s election campaign.

Harward, who led commandos in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, enjoyed a stellar reputation among military officers, diplomats, and lawmakers from both parties. Other qualified candidates likely will think twice before accepting any offers for the post given the administration’s insistence on imposing limits on the advisor’s authority. David Petraeus, the retired four-star general who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, had been mentioned as a possible replacement but he would likely insist on similar conditions allowing him to choose his team.

As a result, the White House may be forced to draw from a less qualified pool of candidates and focus on those who would be less likely to push back against Bannon or other political advisors. Former colleagues of Harward, who has strong ties to Defense Secretary James Mattis dating back years, said he could have posed a potential problem for Bannon and his aides as he would have stood his ground in a disagreement over principle and insisted on clear lines of authority.

Harward was Trump’s top choice to replace Michael Flynn, who resigned on Monday under a cloud after he misled Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. Flynn’s phone calls with the Russian diplomat have fueled questions about the Trump team’s contacts with Moscow after an election in which Russia sought to undermine the president’s opponent, Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

Harward’s dispute about the terms of the job comes amid a weeks-long disagreement between Mattis and the White House over proposed appointments to senior civilian positions in the Defense Department. So far, the White House has rebuffed proposed appointments of Republican policy experts because they signed letters opposed to Trump’s candidacy or criticized him publicly.

A White House official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, did not confirm accounts about differences with Harward over staffing. The official told Foreign Policy that Harward had cited difficulties in severing financial ties to Lockheed Martin, where he is currently employed as an executive, and “family considerations,” as he had just moved his family to Abu Dhabi.

But former officials familiar with the matter said Harward had set conditions that would allow him to select who would serve as his deputy or possibly other senior positions in the NSC. The current National Security Council is populated by several former military officers handpicked by Flynn and Harward asked for the flexibility to decide who he would keep on. One of the sticking points reportedly was over K.T. McFarland, the current deputy national security advisor, who Harward wanted to replace — but the White House resisted.

Former officials from the Obama and Bush administrations said morale was already low in the National Security Council even before Flynn’s departure, as many staff members felt their work was being ignored or marginalized by political advisors who harbor a distrust of career civil servants. They said the episode drove home Bannon’s heavyweight status in the White House and how Trump trusted his political advisors above all.

The failure to close the deal with Harward shows “that the president prefers a national security process with disparate power centers so that he’s not overly reliant on anyone, gets divergent views, has political calculations central to his national security policies, and sustains a high level of unpredictability about what he’ll decide,” said Kori Schake, who served on the National Security Council during the Bush administration and is now a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution (and a FP contributor).

It also illustrated how Trump “continues to rely most heavily on his political advisors for national security counsel,” she said.

Photo credit: Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images