Will he or won’t he? For weeks, rumors have flown that Donald Trump wanted to fire his national security adviser H.R. McMaster, the man who stepped in when Michael Flynn had to resign. Last night, the Washington Post reported that Trump had made the decision to send McMaster packing after successfully sacking Rex Tillerson earlier in the week:
President Trump has decided to remove H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser and is actively discussing potential replacements, according to five people with knowledge of the plans, preparing to deliver yet another jolt to the senior ranks of his administration.
Trump is now comfortable with ousting McMaster, with whom he never personally gelled, but is willing to take time executing the move because he wants to ensure both that the three-star Army general is not humiliated and that there is a strong successor lined up, these people said.
The turbulence is part of a broader potential shake-up under consideration by Trump that is likely to include senior officials at the White House, where staffers are gripped by fear and uncertainty as they await the next move from an impulsive president who enjoys stoking conflict.
The Post wasn’t alone in reporting this, either. The Wall Street Journal followed suit from its own sources, and Fox’s John Roberts echoed the story on Twitter. Then, suddenly, Roberts reversed course:
Ignore my last. @realDonaldTrump is not removing McMaster. He is staying
— John Roberts (@johnrobertsFox) March 16, 2018
— John Roberts (@johnrobertsFox) March 16, 2018
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders went on Twitter to deny that McMaster is going anywhere. In fact, she tweeted, Trump likes working with the former general:
Just spoke to @POTUS and Gen. H.R. McMaster – contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC.
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) March 16, 2018
At least that’s the story the White House wants told. For now, anyway.
So what happened? The Post claimed it had five White House sources for its report; the WSJ didn’t specify a number, but used the word “sources,” indicating at least two. It might very well be that the same sources talked to both outlets, but we could have as many as seven or more people who leaked the McMaster-is-gone story. If it’s false — and that’s still not a given, of course, as we saw with Tillerson — then what’s going on?
Three possible scenarios come to mind. One, Trump was going to fire McMaster but changed his mind. That appears to be what happened with Tillerson, as reports after his termination said Trump had indeed mulled his ouster since a round of rumors back in December. The decision took place much more recently, but it didn’t take long for media outlets who predicted his ouster was imminent three months ago to offer I-told-you-sos in Tillerson’s exit wake.
Two, the White House is looking for leaks and spreading false information in-house in a targeted manner. Actually, we can add a Two-A to this idea, which is that Trump is playing the media as well as looking for leakers within the administration. If that’s the case, though, how did five or more sources end up with the same red herring? Besides, that kind of effort only works with extraordinary claims, and, er, Trump wanting to fire members of his team is turning out to be anything but extraordinary. Trump himself suggested that he intends to do more housecleaning in the near future.
That leaves us with three: Trump hasn’t changed his mind about McMaster at all and he’ll be gone shortly, despite the denials. In both the Post and WSJ reports, the sources said that Trump wants to ensure a more “graceful exit” for McMaster than Tillerson got:
Mr. Trump has decided to oust Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and has conveyed that decision to John Kelly, his chief of staff, according to administration officials. The timing of a departure was unclear, with one official saying it could happen “imminently” and another saying it could be weeks, even months.
Mr. Trump doesn’t yet have a replacement in mind, and is unlikely to force a departure before he has one, the officials said. The president wants a more graceful exit for his national security adviser than he afforded Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of state he fired via Twitter earlier this week, one official said.
If it takes months, though, there’s not much functional difference between Option One and Option Three. If McMaster ends up exiting in June rather than March, people will point back to these reports and claim to have been vindicated. And who knows? Maybe they’ll be correct. For now, though, it appears McMaster will stick around a while longer, and perhaps Trump will think about the impact that further disruption of his nat-sec team will have on his North Korea gambit.
Still, CBS came up with a new wrinkle this morning. McMaster’s out as soon as today, and John Kelly will be right behind him, according to their sources:
Congressional and administration sources tell CBS News that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is very likely to lose his job, and that could happen as soon as Friday. And, according to two sources, White House chief of staff John Kelly could also resign as early as Friday.
Kelly was brought in last summer from his post as Homeland Security secretary in order to bring order to the West Wing, replacing Reince Priebus.
One potential replacement for Kelly as chief of staff is Mick Mulvaney, currently the Office of Management and Budget director. Sources say that he is under serious consideration for the job. Mulvaney is currently also running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.