H.R. McMaster—the national security adviser and the object of her heartbreak—had gone to a White House lectern not once but twice to cover for President Donald Trump, who had gotten busted Monday by the Washington Post for shooting off his mouth about highly classified terrorist threats to visiting Russian dignitaries. McMaster’s ham-fisted attempts at Trump damage control—never have the words “non-denial denial” been more apt—did nothing to persuade close readers of the Post story that the president hadn’t wandered off the reservation and fallen into a bottomless crevice from which there is no rescue.
Had anybody but McMaster tried to make the ridiculous case that Trump had done nothing wrong, the press corps would have pilloried him. The next installment of Saturday Night Live would parody him. Instead, the press has been filled with more than sorrow than anger for the bald-pated lieutenant general, writing as if they had just witnessed a scene from a Shakespeare tragedy where a military leader has chosen duty over honor.
Everybody expected more of him. McMaster, after all, was the one who wrote the book—Dereliction of Duty—on how a senior officer should not bend in serving the truth to the powerful. President Lyndon Johnson “was lying, and he expected the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] to lie as well or, at least, to withhold the whole truth,” he wrote critically. He had garnered respect from troops and pressies alike for his independent mind. Now here he was, the most prominent officer of his generation giving up his soul, playing the role of apologist, if you want to be polite about it, or the liar, if you don’t, for the scoundrel Trump. In the Atlantic, former State Department Counselor Eliot A. Cohen wrote in sorrow of how McMaster (as well as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell) were advancing “the kind of parsed half truths that are as bad, and in some cases worse” than lies, predicting that the moment may come soon that “these high officials can no longer recognize their own characters for what they once were.”
Thomas E. Ricks, who covered McMaster in Iraq, joined the sorrow brigade in a piece for Foreign Policy, recognizing in the “weary, dutiful voice” the Trump aide used speaking to the press his desire to be “a good soldier” for his president. “[I]f he goes down the road he took last night, he will wind up like former National Security Advisor 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,” Ricks wrote.
In the Washington Post, Greg Jaffe, who also covered McMaster in Iraq, described him as unflatteringly as Trump’s “shield.” Slate’s Fred Kaplan, who called McMaster “the Army’s smartest officer” when Trump appointed him in February, lamented the episode in his piece this week titled “The Tarnishing of H.R. McMaster.” McMaster, “who has been all but incapable of guile throughout his career, [was] now soaked in the swamp of deceit in the service of Trump,” Kaplan wrote. It’s McMaster’s job to clean up after Trump’s mistakes, the Slate columnist noted: For instance, when the president said he might force South Korea to pay for a missile-defense system, he told the South Koreans the United States would cover the costs—an incident that led to a screaming phone call from the boss, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reported.
Obviously, nobody is ever as good as their press clips. One reason the press corps respected McMaster was that it can’t resist newsmakers who presents themselves as intellectuals, which his Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina allows him to do. McMaster can be funny and he (once) enjoyed talking to reporters, something they also appreciate. But the press wasn’t drawn to him by charms alone. He bucked the high command and survived; he wasted a bunch of Iraqi tanks during the first Gulf War; he fought and won in Tal Afar; and he commanded deserved respect from soldiers and civilians.
The tragedy of McMaster began when he answered Trump’s call and came to Washington, a place where he didn’t have much experience and whose internal politics dwarf those observed on the battlefield. As a man of duty, he probably thought he had an obligation to serve the commander in chief of the armed forces if summoned. To his credit, McMaster iced Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarlane, soon to be sent to Singapore as ambassador, and added trustworthy staff. And according to press reports, he’s not been Trump’s lackey prior to the current blow-up, earning the president’s enmity for confronting him on the issues and even lecturing him on occasion.
Why then, did the soldier who boxes squander his reputation by taking a dive for Trump, get up from the mat all bloodied, and pretend the match was not rigged? As the Atlantic’s Rosie Gray wrote, it’s dilemma time for McMaster. If he follows the lessons he taught in Dereliction of Duty and resigns on principle, he’ll only be replaced by a sycophant. That brown-noser will likely do Trump’s complete bidding, the way Michael Flynn was, who briefly preceded him as national security advisor. Stay, and he’ll be asked to further soil himself. McMaster must have thought: Which is worse—the nation’s ruination or mine?—before he jumped on the Trump grenade.
An honorable act or the last gasp of a broken man? McMaster goes on today, diminished when measured by his own standards. He can also expect to be rejected by his fraternity. “The essential ingredient in combat leadership is trust, which he may have lost,” Ricks tells me. “The [military] may never welcome him back in.”
Colin Powell never recovered from being reduced to George W. Bush’s Iraq War water-carrier. The same fate probably awaits plain-spoken, virtuous warrior McMaster. He’s broken hearts aplenty with his shilling for Trump. And probably his own.