National security adviser H.R. McMaster has been on the job for less than a month, but the changes at the National Security Council already signal it will play a markedly different role under President Donald Trump than his predecessors.
No decision makes that clearer than Dina Powell’s promotion from advising first daughter Ivanka Trump, to the NSC, where she will become deputy national security adviser for strategy. She will keep her role advising the President on economic initiatives.
While the NSC developed and informed national security policy under previous presidencies, it will now play more of a coordinating role by working between the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department.
In that hierarchy, Powell will be one of the primary interlocutors.
“Dina Powell is an outstanding choice for deputy national security adviser,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “She has years of experience working both in the business world and at many different levels of government, including Congress, the White House, and the State Department.”
“In that time, she has earned the deep respect of her colleagues for her unique ability to not only take the long view but also to coordinate the many moving parts of an administration,” said Cotton, who called the choice of Powell “inspired.”
Powell is expected to play a more traditional role of coordinating policy positions among the various cabinet agencies, according to several officials familiar with her appointment.
In contrast, Ben Rhodes, who served as President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, was one of the President’s closest aides and a strong hand in developing US foreign and national security policy, as were Stephen Hadley and Condoleezza Rice under President George W. Bush.
As an assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, Powell traveled around the world, particularly in the Middle East, including with Rice. She moved on to Goldman Sachs, where she spearheaded the “10,000 Women” initiative to support women entrepreneurs around world, working closely with the State Department.
Already, since arriving at the White House, she’s the driving force behind a new US-Canada program to promote women in business. Powell has already been taking on some of her new responsibilities. When Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the White House earlier this week, Powell was sitting next to McMaster in the Oval Office meeting.
She is moving up in the Trump administration’s national security apparatus at a time when the White House is gutting funding for the very issues she built her foreign policy career around, inside and outside of government.
In an administration that almost exclusively prioritizes hard power, Powell’s strongest foreign policy experience lies in “soft power” — aid programs designed to promote development and in doing so, stabilize countries overseas and win hearts and minds.
Trump has announced budget cuts of 28% to the State Department and a 38% reduction in foreign aid spending. Many expect those cuts to hit the State Department bureau that Powell headed from 2005 to 2007 under Bush — Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Those who have worked closely with Powell in the past said she’ll be key to ensuring that the various agencies that support the National Security Council coordinate smoothly.
“The value she brings is really understanding how agencies work and the interagency process, and that is a critical element for the national security adviser’s office because you’re building bridges,” said Anita McBride, a former assistant to Bush, who described Powell as “a hard worker.”
“It’s crucial to homeland and American security abroad that there be a seamless inter-agency process at the National Security Council,” she said.
But one former State Department official questioned how Powell’s prior experience qualified her to develop strategy about the complex issues of national security that the NSC typically concentrates on.
The official pointed to Powell role as head of Goldman Sachs “10,000 Women Initiative.”
“What does she know about national security?” the source, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel issues, asked. “This is an administration defined by hard power and she, as a former assistant secretary of ECA, epitomized soft power.”
Within the new vision of the National Security Council, though, former NSC officials defended Powell’s move and touted her ability to work within Washington, saying she has precisely the experience needed.
“She has the trust of the President and knowledge of how the system works and the ability to get things done,” said Mark Pfeifle, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications under George W. Bush.
And another former deputy national security adviser, who asked for anonymity to speak bluntly about the White House, said Powell has more experience in Washington than most in the White House.
“She knows more about how Washington works and how the inter-agency works than Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway,” said the former adviser, referring to the White House chief of staff and two top political aides. “She worked on the Hill years ago. She was an assistant secretary at the State Department, which is more qualifications than most people who work at the NSC today.”
A senior administration official said Powell would work with other agencies to implement the long-term strategy of the national security organization. While she will work closely with the other deputy national security adviser, K.T. McFarland, Powell will focus more on running day-to-day operations at the NSC.
McFarland’s role within the national security organization is still an outstanding question. It is unclear whether McFarland, who was hand-picked by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn before he was ousted from heading the NSC, will play a sizable role under McMaster.
“Whenever you see an addition of another job, where you already have someone with the same title, it’s fair to say things aren’t working the way they were expected to work, and eventually you’ll find a way to change it,” said a former administration official. “For an administration that wants to streamline a lot of positions and eliminate positions, it tells you something that they’re adding a position when they already have someone with a similar title.”
A current National Security Council official said Powell had worked closely with McMaster in the last few weeks and gained his trust. The official said McMaster signed off on Powell’s move to his staff.
Powell most recently was an executive at Goldman Sachs. At 29, Powell was the youngest-ever assistant to the president for presidential personnel, heading up all of the Bush White House’s decisions on appointments. Afterwards she was elevated to her assistant secretary role at State.
The Cairo-born, Dallas-raised Powell first came on board Trump’s team after advising his daughter on women’s empowerment issues, helping her foster relationships with business executives over multiple dinner parties focused on women in the workplace during the presidential transition and after the inauguration.
Powell’s closeness to Trump’s daughter and son-in-law will help, McBride said. “They have trusted her institutional knowledge and her ability to present information they didn’t know because they’re coming from completely outside the political nuances of working in the White House and in Washington.”
The National Security Council official said that Powell will continue to advise Ivanka Trump.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Powell was formerly working out of the East Wing.