Behind the Scenes: In the Situation Room

July 11, 2021

The White House Situation Room is not just one room, but several. There are multiple meeting rooms and a main control center where members of the military and the National Security Council gathered and received intelligence, monitored crises around the world, and provided support to White House staff on a number of national security matters. The Situation Room staff also compiled and handled the dissemination of the Morning Book, an intelligence report given to the president, vice president, White House chief of staff, and national security advisor. They also put together morning and evening summaries, hand-delivered to a few senior officials around the building, myself included. Reading the morning and evening summaries from the Situation Room staff was a sobering way to start and end the day.

The primary meeting room for the president in the Situation Room was the John F. Kennedy Conference Room. It had a large table in the middle of the room that seated fourteen in large black leather chairs, with rows of smaller leather chairs on each side of the room lined against the wall for additional staff to participate in meetings. Seats were designated by protocol order. Whoever chaired the meeting always sat at the head of the table. Any time the president was present, that was his seat. A Presidential Seal hung on the wall behind the president’s seat and clocks set to different times in key locations around the world adorned the other wall. There was a large screen in front of the table used for secure video conferencing and to present briefing materials to the group. There were no windows in the Situation Room, and phones and computers were strictly prohibited.

During an emergency principals small group meeting after another North Korea nuclear test, at the table in the Situation Room sat Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and me. The president was given the threat assessment and options to respond from his national security team. We discussed how strong the administration’s statement should be, who it should come from, and whether it should be issued in writing or on camera. I hadn’t said much since the meeting started, but the president suddenly turned to me and asked me what he should do. I said I liked the idea of delivering a simple, clear message on camera from the White House because it would present a unified front from the administration and command more media attention than a written or on-camera statement from the State Department or Department of Defense. The president agreed and we spent the last part of the meeting finalizing the statement that would be delivered outside the West Wing by General Mattis, with General Dunford standing beside him. Having two distinguished military leaders issue the statement would project strength and confidence to the world and especially North Korea.

We wanted the leadership of North Korea to understand clearly that America wasn’t going to be bullied. They were threatening the strongest military on the face of the earth, and if they started a war against the United States it would end in their deaths. General Mattis delivered the statement, which included a line I wrote: “Because we are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea. But as I said, we have many options to do so.”

Afterward, General Mattis turned to me and said, “You’re tough. The only job in the administration I’d want less than mine is yours.”

Thanks for reading,