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Trump Administration Has Been Downsizing The National Security Council

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump is defending his decision to order a strike that killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. He says Soleimani posed an imminent threat to the United States. Democrats and some Republicans have pressed the White House for more justification. Today Trump gave some new details in an interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News.

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LAURA INGRAHAM: Don't the American people have a right to know what specifically was targeted without revealing methods and sources?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I don't think so. But we will tell you that, probably, it was going to be the embassy in Baghdad.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Pressed again, Trump said there may have been other plans.

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TRUMP: I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies.

CORNISH: Trump's decision to strike comes as he makes steep cuts to the National Security Council, a group whose goal is to provide information and analysis about the consequences of major actions. White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez tells us more about why this streamlining is happening and some of the risks that come with it.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Before he took over the National Security Council in September, Robert O'Brien felt the White House's foreign policy wing had become bloated. There were about 180 experts who gather facts and dole out advice to the president. In an exclusive interview with NPR, O'Brien says that was too many. By the end of next month, he'll have reached the goal to cut the NSC by a third.

ROBERT O'BRIEN: We'll probably have about 60 to 70 staffers who've gone back to their home agencies.

ORDOÑEZ: For O'Brien, a smaller NSC is a more efficient one.

O'BRIEN: We didn't want to recreate the State Department over here at 1600 Pennsylvania. We didn't want to recreate the Defense Department.

ORDOÑEZ: For people who have served on the NSC, leaner is not always better. They say you need a wide range of experts to study and give advice on the potential consequences of major actions, like the decision to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. It was a move that past White Houses had rejected because of the risks of war.

JOHN GANS: You sort of see a very messy decision on the Soleimani strike, one that didn't seem to have all of the sort of Ts crossed and Is dotted.

ORDOÑEZ: John Gans wrote a book on the NSC called "White House Warriors." He says the president doesn't trust the kind of guidance traditionally given by the NSC. It doesn't help that some of the most damning testimony against him in the impeachment hearings came from people working for the NSC.

GANS: This decision on Iran is - you can't divorce it from President Trump's sort of war against the so-called deep state, right? What he calls the deep state is really the - what everybody else calls America's experts on Iran, Iraq and every other foreign policy issue.

ORDOÑEZ: O'Brien argues a smaller NSC allows the State Department and Pentagon to do their jobs. He says a big NSC can be tempted to dabble in diplomacy and military operations better left to the Cabinet.

O'BRIEN: I look back at the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I think folks believe Kennedy - President Kennedy handled that crisis pretty well. He had 12 staffers - policy staffers at the NSC.

ORDOÑEZ: But Fernando Cutz says times have changed.

FERNANDO CUTZ: You can say, well, you know, 30, 40 years ago, the NSC used to be smaller. But 30, 40 years ago, we didn't need a counterterrorism director because we didn't have 9/11 yet.

ORDOÑEZ: Cutz was a top aide to former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, one of O'Brien's predecessors in the Trump administration. He worries fewer experts mean fewer angles are being considered.

CUTZ: As the NSC continues to shrink, what you're going to see is less and less of a policy process, less and less solid options being presented to the president and more just kind of ideas, you know, happening.

ORDOÑEZ: But in the case of Iran, O'Brien says the president got just the advice he needed.

O'BRIEN: We had all the key principles in place with the president, with the vice president. So I think it was as about - it was as much inter-agency coordination as going to happen.

ORDOÑEZ: By the end of next month, O'Brien will have accomplished his first order of business - an NSC that's about half the size of the one in place for former President Barack Obama; one he says is the right size to help President Trump achieve his policy goals.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMPRESS OF SONG, "TRISTEZA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.