Judging from how the front page of Breitbart looked this morning, we can safely assume that if he does have a purge list, a lot of Bannonites inside the White House are on it.
— Jason Seher (@jhseher) August 4, 2017
Anti-McMaster sources whispered yesterday to the Free Beacon that more “purges” were rumored to be coming after Derek Harvey, Rich Higgins, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick were dismissed. Now here’s BuzzFeed with murmurings about a “purge list”:
White House aides said they do not know if the purge list represented a genuine plan by a newly-empowered McMaster to root out more staffers or a ruse by pro-Trump activists designed to sound the alarm about McMaster’s perceived intent to clean house. Either way, the aides said, the sense of uncertainty is palpable.
“Very few people know who’s going to get axed next, but if you’re viewed as a Flynnstone it’s a liability,” said a person close to the White House, referring to staffers hired by McMaster’s predecessor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
Is that it — is this about Flynn, and McMaster wanting to rid the NSC of his influence by cashiering his loyalists? Or is it about policy differences on Iran? Cohen-Watnick and Harvey were known as Iran hawks (as was Flynn); it could be that McMaster wants a more dovish approach, although BuzzFeed notes that Harvey allegedly agreed with McMaster that the Iran nuclear deal should be recertified. For now.
Or is this actually less about Flynn or Iran than it is about Steve Bannon? This dynamic seems unsustainable:
McMaster’s allies have accused Bannon and his protege Sebastian Gorka, a cable-news mainstay, of waging a concerted campaign to minimize the national security adviser’s influence. Bannon and Gorka have recently become a more regular and outspoken presence at meetings led by McMaster and his team on Afghanistan, the Middle East and the administration’s national security strategy.
Politico reported today that an argument between McMaster and Bannon at a meeting in July got so heated that James Mattis had to intervene. One theory for why McMaster was eager to have Cohen-Watnick et al. off the NSC is that he suspected them of leaking against him, not just of differing with him on policy. “He seethes over every national security leak and lashes out over negative news stories he thinks are spread by his enemies,” per Politico. (“Aides said the ouster of Mr. Cohen-Watnick was intended as a show of confidence from Mr. Kelly to Mr. McMaster,” wrote the Times of the new chief of staff’s support for the NSA.) That may also explain why nationalist media has been so incensed at McMaster over the past few days. It’s not just that he’s booting Bannonites out of the White House. It may be that he’s also booting some of their key sources.
There’s a policy component to the McMaster/Bannon feud too, and not just on Afghanistan. Back to Iran:
Though McMaster officially removed Bannon from the NSC principals committee after taking over from Mike Flynn in February, recent reports and sources indicate that Bannon has continued to operate a kind of parallel power center that has drawn in fringe thinkers who favor regime change in Tehran. A faction around Bannon has been thinking about how to destabilize Iran but is constrained by the fact that Trump tells them he does not want another big war, a military analyst whose mentors in the US national defense community have participated in the discussions told Al-Monitor.
“The challenge is that the administration wants to do North Korea and Iran in Year One, to go into 2018 with national security capital,” the military analyst told Al-Monitor, describing what his associates have heard in discussions with Bannon.
“Thus far … no one in the administration can move Trump to start a war because he doesn’t want to have his Iraq,” the military analyst said, referring to the 2003 US invasion. “With Iran, they are looking at regime change but coming up empty. There are no good plans, no decapitation strikes possible, like in North Korea.”
Gonna solve North Korea and Iran in the next six months, huh? No wonder Bannon hates McMaster. Those are some big, big, big plans he’s disrupting. Or, more likely, this is an absurd exaggeration of Bannon’s foreign policy goals by his enemies inside the White House. A man who wants Trump to pull back from Afghanistan for fear of wasting further blood and treasure there probably isn’t hot for a much costlier war with Tehran.
The other theory on McMaster, the one favored by righty media, is that he’s a Democratic wolf in nonpartisan sheep’s clothing, a man dedicated to undermining the president by enabling his enemies and undermining his allies. How else to explain those Obama holdovers on the National Security Council? WaPo tried to debunk that, though:
McMaster’s first big task, though, was not winning over his boss but earning the trust of his staffers — many of whom were on loan to the NSC from other federal agencies and had been disparaged by some Trump administration officials as “Obama holdovers.”
McMaster tried to ban the term. In his first staff town hall meeting, he emphasized that as a nonpartisan Army officer he did not vote — a message he delivered repeatedly during his first months. McMaster wanted the NSC’s professional staff to know that he valued its input. He was also sending a message, perhaps unwittingly, to the president, who demands loyalty from his staff and regularly boasts of the size of his electoral-college victory…
During his six months on the job, McMaster has raised morale among the career staffers, who describe him as open and accessible.
Seems like he wants a bipartisan, and therefore ideally nonpartisan, Council. Do the Obama holdovers see their roles the same way? The fact that he hasn’t revoked Susan Rice’s security clearance has also been cited as evidence, supposedly, of McMaster’s lupine nature, but the Weekly Standard debunked that too. All former NSAs apparently received letters from McMaster recently assuring them that their clearances were still intact. That would be a major problem in Rice’s case if it’s true that she unmasked Americans improperly last year. But did she? We’re still waiting to see the evidence. And McMaster, who allegedly has seen it, is unconvinced.
Anyway. The Daily Beast says that Bannon ally and populist favorite Sebastian Gorka is safe for now, as Trump enjoys his TV appearances and appreciates Gorka’s articulation of his vision. But the McMaster/Bannon/Gorka dynamic is obviously unstable and will eventually detonate. The question is who ends up as a casualty when it does. If McMaster is a marked man, it’s strange that Trump would let Kelly back him in purging the NSC of Bannonites. The more secure Kelly’s position becomes, the more secure McMaster’s position would seem to become too. And the less Bannon’s and Gorka’s will be.