As a U.S. Army general, H.R. McMaster has faced down Iraqi tank divisions, al Qaeda terrorists and Taliban insurgents.
But as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, McMaster is navigating the strange environment of Washington politics and media, putting his truth-telling reputation on the line to defend Trump against claims he disclosed sensitive information to Russian officials in the Oval Office.
McMaster’s public defense of Trump over the past 24 hours comes as he has been fending off White House colleagues unhappy about his consolidation of control over the National Security Council, which he took over in February after Trump fired his predecessor, Michael Flynn.
McMaster appeared outside the West Wing on Monday evening to read a brief statement calling a Washington Post story on the May 11 Oval Office incident “false.” On Tuesday, he faced reporters in the White House briefing room, where he again condemned the Post report but seemed to dilute his message that it was false, insisting that Trump’s disclosure had been “wholly appropriate.”
The three-star general’s reputation as an apolitical figure and student of military thinkers like Clausewitz and Thucydides lends his defense of Trump credibility. He has criticized generals for failing to challenge their civilian leaders—a case he made in his study of the Vietnam War, “Dereliction of Duty.” “Our leaders can’t feel compelled to tell their bosses what they want to hear,” McMaster said in a 2013 interview with McKinsey & Company.
But by some appearances, it has been an uncomfortable role, even for a general who during the 1991 Gulf War led an outnumbered force that destroyed 25 Iraqi tanks and 30 trucks without suffering a single loss. “This is the last place in the world I wanted to be,” McMaster said after being cornered by reporters outside the West Wing Monday night. And at moments during his Tuesday press room briefing, McMaster appeared halting as he parried questions from veteran White House reporters—at one point pulling off his black-framed glasses in apparent frustration.
Tom Ricks, an author and former Pentagon reporter who covered McMaster during the Iraq War, warned on Tuesday that he might “wind up like former National Security Adviser Colin Powell, whose strong sense of loyalty was manipulated by the Bush administration to the point of him giving a speech at the United Nations on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that we now know to have been almost entirely false.”
“[M]y guess is that when McMaster was trotted out before the cameras last night, he gave up a little piece of his soul,” Ricks wrote in Foreign Policy.
Other critics pointed to seeming contradictions in his position. McMaster insisted that Trump had told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak “nothing that you would not know from open-source reporting.” On the other hand, he said U.S. national security had been “put at risk” by the Washington Post and other outlets reporting on Trump’s conversation with the Russians.
Even as the furor over Trump’s meeting with Russia’s ambassador and foreign minister subsides, McMaster has plenty of work ahead of him. On Friday, Trump departs for a 10-day trip to the Middle East and Europe that will be a test of McMaster’s organizational and planning ability—and his ability to make Trump adhere to a script without alarming or offending key U.S. allies with extemporaneous remarks.
McMaster’s sudden prominence also caps a period in which he has exerted more control over the NSC, though not without pushback from rivals inside the White House and outsiders aligned with Flynn. In recent weeks McMaster has successfully pushed out several Flynn loyalists and replaced them with his own hires. One result, according to two sources in contact with NSC staffers, has been a coordinated leak campaign against him by Flynn holdovers and allies.
News stories described confrontations between Trump and McMaster and criticism of his management from fellow White House aides. One recent Washington Post story said that some White House officials derided a McMaster-backed plan to modestly increase the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan as “McMaster’s War.”
One NSC colleague was eager to criticize McMaster’s halting appearance in the briefing room: “Wow, that was not good,” the official said.
But McMaster has won internal battles too. After reports in early May that he had been prevented from installing a new NSC deputy, Brigadier General Ricky Waddell, McMaster prevailed and last week introduced Waddell at an NSC staff meeting. He will share duties with another deputy national security adviser, Dina Powell, whose focus will be on long-term strategic planning.
Some NSC staffers interpreted Waddell’s arrival as the effective firing of KT McFarland, a former Reagan Pentagon official and failed Senate candidate hired by Flynn—and whom McMaster has tried for months to dislodge, reportedly over Trump’s repeated objections. McFarland is now in line to become Trump’s ambassador to Singapore, though her nomination has not been submitted amid a huge backlog of pending ambassadorial picks.
A senior White House official denied that McMaster had fired McFarland but said that in last week’s meeting to introduce Waddell, McFarland “gave a very nice set of remarks about how excited she is” to go to Singapore.
One Republican in regular contact with NSC officials, including some Flynn holdovers with reservations about McMaster, said they were impressed by the general’s defense of Trump and believe his job security is stronger than ever as a result.
“The power play to get rid of H.R.,” concluded one Republican in regular contact with NSC officials, “is over and lost.”
Tara Palmeri contributed reporting