The hiring of John Kelly and the departure of Anthony Scaramucci has tamped down the palace intrigue in the White House proper. Has it begun again at the National Security Council? National security adviser H.R. McMaster has recently shuffled the personnel at the NSC, and those who found themselves without seats when the music stopped have not gone away quietly. The Daily Caller interviews two of the departed, who warn that McMaster has wrested foreign policy away from Donald Trump:
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is thwarting President Donald Trump’s foreign policy prescriptions, two former senior NSC officials told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“Everything the president wants to do, McMaster opposes,” a former senior official said in a wide-ranging interview. “Trump wants to get us out of Afghanistan — McMaster wants to go in. Trump wants to get us out of Syria — McMaster wants to go in. Trump wants to deal with the China issue — McMaster doesn’t. Trump wants to deal with the Islam issue — McMaster doesn’t. You know, across the board, we want to get rid of the Iran deal — McMaster doesn’t. It is incredible to watch it happening right in front of your face. Absolutely stunning.”
One former official characterized McMaster as a “sycophant” of retired Army Gen. David Petraeus.
“I know that the president isn’t a big fan of what McMaster’s doing,” the former official declared. “I don’t understand why he’s allowing a guy who is subverting his foreign policy at every turn to remain in place.” he added.
How much of this is for real, and how much of this is sour grapes? After all, the two former NSC officials are hardly unbiased observers, having been bounced out by McMaster themselves (and still speaking anonymously, oddly enough). They clearly have an interest in making McMaster look bad, and doing so as publicly as possible. With this president and his intense interest in media coverage of his administration, the intent is clear enough — they want Trump to see the criticism and to conclude that McMaster is his enemy.
Without a doubt, a fight has been waged inside the Trump administration over foreign policy and national security, which happens in most presidencies. Politico offered an overview of the presumed battleground in these policy areas last night, while reporting that John Kelly’s arrival as chief of staff has at least correlated to a freer hand for McMaster:
National security adviser H.R. McMaster, who has waged a pitched battle with other senior staff for control over policy and personnel on the National Security Council, is taking advantage of the shield offered by the arrival of his old military colleague John Kelly as White House chief of staff.
Kelly told McMaster this week that he wanted him to remain as national security adviser, said two senior White House aides, and has encouraged him to make any staffing changes he deems necessary. McMaster took that as a green light this week to oust top intelligence aide Ezra Cohen-Watnick — a Michael Flynn hire who has a warm relationship with Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law — after months of trying. …
McMaster is fiercely at odds with Steve Bannon, the Trump strategist who was removed from the principals committee of the National Security Council in April after McMaster’s appointment. In mid-July, the two sparred openly, in a widely attended policy meeting about Afghanistan, with McMaster advocating greater U.S. involvement and Bannon arguing for a major pullback.
The dispute got so out of hand, according to a pair of senior White House officials, that Secretary of Defense James Mattis had to intervene to get the discussion back on track.
While he has occasionally clashed with Kushner, the influential son-in-law, has a better relationship with him these days, a White House official with direct knowledge said.
In other words, this isn’t much more than the traditional interventionists vs isolationists tension seen in most post-WWII American administrations. It certainly seems to be more heated than usual, but that may be because it’s become more public than usual. The argument over Afghanistan has been percolating for several years on the Right, where a significant segment has grown weary with the costs and lack of progress in nation-building, while others see a need to redouble efforts to keep terrorists marginalized as much as possible — especially with ISIS extending itself into Kandahar. You can’t advocate “dealing with Islam” while also advocating an exit from the field in fighting the worst of the Islamist terror networks, in both Afghanistan and Syria, a point that Trump seems to have learned.
At the moment, it looks like the hawks are winning, which may be why we are seeing the public blowback aimed at McMaster. At least some of this is hyperbolic, as was the case with the Susan Rice clearance story yesterday. Michael Warren explained at the Weekly Standard that the decision was much less significant than critics claimed:
As Eli Lake reported, McMaster has “concluded Rice did nothing wrong” when she sought the names of Trump associates discussed in intelligence reports. Those sympathetic with Steve Bannon and McMaster’s immediate predecessor, Mike Flynn, believe otherwise and have insinuated that McMaster is working to undermine the Trump administration. Does Rice’s renewed security clearance show the Deep State at work?
Hardly, a White House official explained to me. I’m told McMaster wrote similar letters to all the living national security advisers from past administrations—Democratic and Republican—as a matter of longstanding practice. Revoking Rice’s clearance would have been unusual. And that practice applies not just to national security advisers but to other departments and agencies, such as secretary of State. The reason, the official said, is for the purposes of continuity. Without a continued security clearance, it would be illegal for government officials to discuss relevant sensitive information with a former official. The process for reauthorizing a past official’s security clearance is lengthy.
This may or may not be a bad practice, but one thing the official stressed to me was that this security clearance doesn’t give former officials like Rice continued asking privileges for sensitive information.
If that turns out to be a nothingburger, then the allegations from the people who found themselves without chairs when the music stops seems similarly overblown. If McMaster was so far afield from Trump’s nat-sec vision, why would McMaster still be in that position? Why would Trump have chosen John Kelly, a McMaster ally, as his chief of staff? The series of positions cited by these two former NSC officials seem at least arguable, too. Does Trump really want the US out of Syria, or to get rid of the Iran deal? Thus far, his actions haven’t exactly lined up with those assumptions. Trump has been challenging China militarily (in the South China Sea), diplomatically, and has hinted at economic consequences as well, a message that China has certainly heard loudly and clearly, with McMaster’s help. That sounds like a laundry list of the positions that the two fired NSC officials think Trump should be holding, and want to use the media to demand.
If Trump really held those positions, he could have replaced McMaster at any time. He doesn’t need the Senate to confirm a nat-sec adviser, and there are plenty of candidates from the isolationist wing of the party from which to choose. The fact that McMaster remains and these sources don’t strongly suggests that they wound up on the losing end of the argument with Trump, not that Trump is getting betrayed by McMaster.
Still, who knows? Perhaps the media campaign against McMaster will undermine Trump’s confidence in him, and he’ll get shown the door soon. Alternately, this might be seen as disloyal leaking that will undermine confidence in the isolationist wing even further, and lead to other White House exits other than McMaster’s.