Inside Trump’s National Security Team: Unmasking Captain Chaos

Inside Trump’s National Security Team: Unmasking Captain Chaos

What Trump does may appear unconventional to some outside observers, but there’s a reason for why it works.

What is reported as “ chaos” at the White House does little to explain how foreign and defense policy gets done. In practice, Trump’s team runs well. What the president ought to be doing is more of the same.

What Trump does may appear unconventional to some outside observers, but there’s a reason why it works. The elements of chaos include the instruments of some of the best policymaking of the past.

In the Arena

There’s nothing wrong with fierce debate (including throwing some elbows) among senior members of the national-security team. That was one of the great strengths of FDR’s way of war. At the 1941 ABC-1 talks and the Arcadia Conference after the attack on Pearl Harbor, American warlords agreed on a coalition strategy of “defeat Germany first.” That, however, was only the start of a great and often acrimonious debate on how to win the war.

Good strategy ought to have the lifeline of a guiding idea. Strategy, on the other hand, also has to be dynamic, accounting for enemy actions and conditions on the ground.


Nothing went exactly as planned. Beneath the umbrella of “defeat Germany first,” the top tier of America’s leadership vigorously debated four options. The proposals battered around ranged from maneuvering through the soft underbelly of Europe to letting MacArthur return to the Philippines.

Wartime quarrels were not alternatives to the foundational strategy. They were more a supermarket of opportunities that the Americans could draw from. That made the U.S. approach to global war dynamic and adaptive. Not dogmatically following a linear course to victory was a strength. That practice would not have been possible without open and honest debate among senior policymakers.

There are signs that Trump follows that practice as well. Consider the decision on Afghanistan policy. From the outside, we can count at least three rounds of serious and full debate among the president and his senior team before they hammered out a consensus policy.

In his address to the nation, Trump acknowledged that the final decision went against his own initial assessment of what to do. That would not have happened without the president wanting to hear a serious airing of the issue from his senior team.

Further, the president realized that the first big decision is just the start of the job, not the end of it. What followed Trump’s decision has been a process of adapting and innovating. The administration has already started on the follow-on efforts; pressing Pakistan to change its behavior and developing alternative lines of supply into Afghanistan.

Trust and Confidence

While debate is good, factionalism and backbiting is not. FDR sometimes intentionally created friction among his senior team, pitting them against each other. He once said, “I never let my right hand know what my left hand is doing.”

If policy struggles becomes destructive, however, that isn’t helpful. During World War II, there were some extraordinary leaders beneath FDR who continued to work in trust and confidence, despite their disagreements. The best examples are Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Ernest King.

King once went to see Marshall to debate strategy. After a frustrating waiting in the outer office, he stormed back to his own headquarters. When Marshall found out that the admiral had been left cooling his heels, he rushed over to King’s office and apologized. He knew the war couldn’t be won if they didn’t work together. King appreciated the gesture. He replied, “I think we can [work together], and we will.”

Not every presidential team, even ones with some outstanding leaders, achieved this level of trust and confidence. Under Ronald Reagan, two fine men, Caspar Weinberger at Defense and George Shultz at State were often at odds. Their intransigence continually frustrated efforts to forge effective policies.

Trump, by contrast, has assembled a talented team of independent, confident leaders who have managed to “storm and norm” on difficult issues. The likes of John Kelly, Rex Tillerson, James Mattis and H. R. McMaster well serve the president. Trump would be smart to keep this proven team together through his first term.

In particular, the administration ought to take every opportunity to trash the trash talk that anybody’s job is up for grabs. The president might consider, for example, giving H. R. McMaster a fourth star now. That would be one way to send the right signal—confidence in the team and confidence that the team is delivering the right stuff.

Corralling the Cats

“Chaos is good,” writer Alice Walker once proclaimed. Still, the value of chaos has its limits. The creativity, innovation, and out-of-the-box thinking that comes from vigorous debate and discussion has limits. In the end, governments have to decide and execute.

Dick Allen served as Reagan’s national security advisor for less than two years—pretty much the only time the Gipper’s NSC worked well. That is because Allen achieved a degree of discipline in the decisionmaking process. Allen managed to crank out many of Reagan’s most important and lasting policies for helping win the Cold War.