Just when you think Jeff Sessions will be the next major casualty of the Trump administration after Flynn and Comey, here comes Flynn’s replacement as NSA gaining fast along the rail on his way towards the exit.
Within a year or so, the entire inner circle will be gone. The only survivors roaming the White House halls will be Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer, the tardigrades of the Trump administration — odd, unappealing, yet indestructible.
The three foreign officials who have spoken with top Trump advisers described a disconnect, or “mixed signals,” between Trump and his team over Russia, highlighting a lack of a clear policy. U.S. officials echoed that sentiment, with one saying diplomats and intelligence officials were “dumbfounded” by the president’s approach, particularly given the evidence of Russia’s election meddling.
McMaster expressed his disapproval of Trump’s course to foreign officials during the lead-up to his trip to Germany. The general specifically said he’d disagreed with Trump’s decision to hold an Oval Office meeting in May with top Russian diplomats and with the president’s general reluctance to speak out against Russian aggression in Europe, according to the three foreign officials.
McMaster and other national security aides also advised the president against holding an official bilateral meeting with Putin.
McMaster is a classic Trump administration figure in that (a) he’s amply qualified to hold the position he holds and (b) no one can figure out why Trump, in particular, would want him in that position. Same with entitlement-cutter Mick Mulvaney or Tom Price, same with Rubio-esque hawk Nikki Haley, same with down-the-middle prosecutor Rod Rosenstein. All of them are fine choices for a traditional Republican president, but for a big-government NATO-skeptic populist who resents the Russiagate probe? Bananas.
McMaster’s there because he’s a general and Trump likes generals, and he was sold to the president (accurately) as a highly credible replacement for Flynn whose appointment would earn Trump plaudits for professionalizing his administration. But he’s a terrible match on the merits. He’s a Russia hawk while Trump is very much a Russia dove; reportedly he supports greater intervention in Syria while Trump is inclined towards deescalation; he dislikes Trump using terms like “radical Islamic terrorism” even though Trump’s un-PC criticism of Islam is part of his appeal to his fans; he’s also been known to correct Trump’s foreign-policy errors privately when chatting with diplomats, something for which the president reportedly chewed him out. McMaster was even blindsided last month at the NATO summit in Brussels when Trump removed a passage in his prepared remarks that reaffirmed America’s commitment to Article 5. It all feels like a marriage gone bad but for which divorce isn’t an option: McMaster won’t quit because he probably feels a duty to provide professional guidance to a newbie president and Trump won’t fire him because it would look ridiculous for him to appoint his third NSA in six months. So they’re stuck with each other — to a point. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that McMaster was left out of the G20 meeting with Putin while Rex Tillerson got to attend.
The AP story doesn’t specifically say that McMaster objected to Trump’s dinner chat with Putin but it implies it. “The previously undisclosed conversation, which occurred a few hours after their official bilateral meeting, raised red flags with advisers already concerned by the president’s tendency to shun protocol and press ahead with outreach toward Russia,” the AP claims. McMaster is the most prominent advisor named in the piece as having concerns along those lines, wondering why Trump would insist on engaging Putin at a moment when Russiagate concerns are peaking following the news of Don Jr’s meeting with the Russian lawyer about Clinton dirt. Serious question: Is that purely an “optics” thing for McMaster or does he have some suspicions about collusion himself? If so, that’s another reason why he hasn’t left the administration already. If he thinks there’s a chance that something nefarious is going on with Russia, he might want to hold on to his position so that he has more power to interfere with it. And Trump would want to keep him close, remembering what happened with James Comey testifying before Congress the last time he fired a major federal official.
By the way, the May meeting between Trump and Russia’s foreign minister that McMaster supposedly opposed is also the one he went out and defended after WaPo reported that Trump accidentally spilled some valuable intel on ISIS in the course of it. Remember the presser below? Exit question: Trump told the Times yesterday that he and Putin discussed “adoption” during their dinner conversation. Isn’t that just another way of saying they discussed … sanctions?