In the aftermath of today's main political event, the removal of Steve Bannon from Trump's National Security Council, the punditry and the public have been eager to find out if this was a voluntary transition - in Bannon's own words "I was put on to ensure that [Susan Rice's NSC] was de-operationalized. General McMaster has returned the NSC to its proper function” - or whether there was a behind the scenes conflict between Bannon and Trump or others in the administration - Reuters reported that Bannon's removal from the NSC was seen as a boost to H.R. McMaster, who officials said has struggled to work together with Bannon.
And while it will hardly provide a definitive answer, especially to skeptics, moments ago Fox News' Martha MacCallum sat down with Vice President Mike Pence for a wide-ranging interview. Pence also addressed the major news stories of the day, where of particular interest was the discussion on the removal of Steve Bannon.
Asked if the NSC move was a demotion for Bannon, Pence said "not for Steve, not for Ton. These are very highly valued members of our administration. They're going to continue to play important policy roles. But I think with H.R. McMaster’s addition as our National Security Advisor – a man of extraordinary background in the military – this is just a natural evolution to ensure the National Security Council is organized in a way that best serves the president in resolving and making those difficult decisions," Pence said.
That, however, conflicts with what the NYT reported this evening, when the newspaper (as usual relying on "a White House official who, like others, insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations") said that "Bannon resisted the move, even threatening at one point to quit if it went forward... Bannon’s camp denied that he had threatened to resign and spent the day spreading the word that the shift was a natural evolution, not a signal of any diminution of his outsize influence."
His allies said privately that Mr. Bannon had been put on the principals committee to keep an eye on Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, a retired three-star general who lasted just 24 days before being forced out for misleading Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about what he had discussed with Russia’s ambassador. With Mr. Flynn gone, these allies said, there was no need for Mr. Bannon to remain, but they noted that he had kept his security clearance.
Of course, the whether the NYT report is trustworthy is just as pertinent.
Pence also said that Americans “have a right to know” details about allegations that President Obama's National Security Adviser Susan Rice asked for the identity of Trump transition team members to be unmasked in intelligence reports.
“Well I think the American people have a right to know what was going on. And we have every confidence that intelligence committees in the House and the Senate will get to the bottom of all of these allegations,” Pence told Fox News. Rice became the subject of ire from Trump allies earlier this week after media reports said the former Obama official requested the identities of transition team members be unmasked in reports about surveillance of foreign targets. Rice on Tuesday did not deny that she requested the unmasking of identities, but said she would not have done so for political reasons.
Pence, when asked if Rice should testify in front of Congress, said such a decision is up to lawmakers. “But I would say the American people have a right to know if there was surveillance of any private citizen in this country,” he added in the Fox News interview.
“And the identity of those citizens was revealed, people ought to have the right to know why. And the fact that it involved out campaign and our transition should be deeply troubling to anyone cherishes civil liberties in this country.”
Trump, in an interview with the New York Times earlier on Wednesday, said he thought Rice committed a crime. “Do I think? Yes, I think.” Trump told the newspaper when asked.
Another pertinent topic touched upon by Pence was the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, which he said appears to be the work of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and which prompted Trump this afternoon to suggest that his Syria policy may change as a result.
"No American can look at those images and not be heartsick," Pence said. "It is a reflection of the failure of the past administration to both confront the mindless violence of the Assad regime and also hold Russia and Syria to account for the promises that they made to destroy chemical weapons."
Finally, when discussing Trump's upcoming meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Pence said he's expecting a "productive discussion" about the U.S.-China economic relationship. He added that he expects North Korea and its burgeoning hopes of developing nuclear weapons will also be discussed.
"As the president said this weekend, if China won’t deal with North Korea, we will," Pence said.