Updated | Is H.R. McMaster, the White House national security adviser, on the way out? By some signs, he is: President Donald Trump not only excluded him from a key meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his national security adviser Monday night in Jerusalem, he was kept “outside the King David [Hotel] room during the course of the entire meeting,” according to an eye-catching Israeli account.
Taken alone, the perceived shaming wouldn’t amount to much: Trump has a habit of slighting his aides in public. But the incident came only days after a report in The New York Times that McMaster had fallen out of favor with the president. Trump had “complained that General McMaster talks too much in meetings,” and “the president has referred to him as ‘a pain,’” The Times said in a report that was not challenged by the White House. By the time Trump left Israel for his meeting in Rome with the Pope, right-wing news sites closely allied with the so-called “nationalist” wing of the White House were serving up full throated criticism of McMaster, a distinguished Army general.
“Gen. McMaster Squanders Tremendous Capital Trump Earns in Saudi Arabia,” screamed a headline at Frontpage, a web site that has championed the president’s travel ban and other anti-Muslim themes. McMaster “acknowledged that the President had used the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ in his speech” in Riyadh,” the news site complained, “then immediately tried to back away from it.” The general had “returned to the Obama-era white-washing of Islam [and] bending over backwards out of fear of offending Muslim leaders whose support we need to fight ISIS,” it claimed.
Breitbart News Network, formerly edited by Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, went further, inviting “anti-Muslim gadfly” Frank Gaffney onto its Sirius XM radio show to blast McMaster as “one of the leading voices in the Trump administration seeking to divorce Islam from terrorism.”
Likewise, Mike Cernovich, a blogger with a large far-right following, has been running a campaign against the general, accusing him of “manipulating intelligence reports” and “plotting how to sell a massive ground war in Syria to President Trump with the help of disgraced former CIA director and convicted criminal David Petraeus, who mishandled classified information by sharing documents with his mistress.”
Even before McMaster left on Trump’s foreign trip, writers from the Washington establishment were urging him to resign before he lost the last shreds of his dignity under the erratic president. “Twenty years ago, H.R. McMaster authored a cautionary tale,” Washington Post columnist Carlos Lozada wrote, referencing the general’s acclaimed book on how U.S. military leaders enabled bad decision-making by President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War. “Now he risks becoming one.”
Another writer at the liberal-leaning Foreign Policy web site quoted from McMaster’s book, Dereliction of Duty, to suggest he risked grave injury to his reputation if he stuck around much longer. Richard Miles, who served on President George W. Bush’s White House National Security Council, noted that McMaster opened one of the chapters in his book with a quote from Admiral David McDonald, chief of naval operations from 1963 to 1967: “Maybe we military men were all weak. Maybe we should have stood up and pounded the table....I was part of it and I’m sort of ashamed of myself too. At times I wonder, ‘why did I go along with this kind of stuff?”
Ironically, the multiple new bombshells on the Trump-Russia front breaking Friday night may strengthen McMaster’s hand, should he decide to stick around. With new revelations that Trump’s son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner sought to establish a back channel with the Kremlin through its embassy in Washington, allegedly bypassing U.S. intelligence communications systems to discuss a quid-pro-quo to benefit Trump’s friends when the president lifted American sanctions on Russia, McMaster suddenly looks like a towering figure of virtue in a widening pool of sleaze.
If so, it would be quite a reversal of fortune for the much maligned retired general. Many of McMaster’s friends and admirers were dismayed when Trump sent him out to explain away reports of his boss sharing above-top secret intelligence about an allied source of information—said to be Israel—on the Islamic State militant group with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to Washington. Some saw it as a deliberate act of humiliation. John Nagl, who had worked with McMaster on U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, told NPR he was in “an absolutely impossible situation. And many of us, his friends, were concerned that something like this was going to happen when he took this job working for this administration.
“The president” Nagl said, “expects him to defend the indefensible.”
While McMaster sat outside the Jerusalem meeting with Netanyahu and his aides, the president included two officials with zero diplomatic experience in the Middle East, his son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner and a longtime Trump Organization employee, Jason Greenblatt. A year ago, Greenblatt was “the chief attorney overseeing large transactions for the Trump Organization, including any involving Trump family members,” Politico reported. “Now he’s in the White House as the president’s lead envoy in the Middle East…” David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer and the president’s newly appointed ambassador to Israel (who has long helped fund illegal Israeli settlements), rounded out the Trump entourage at the Netanyahu meeting.
“There has been a lot in the press about Trump’s growing antipathy to McMaster, though it’s hard to know how much of it is true and how much of it is the result of intramural smear jobs from the warring White House factions,” says Daniel Benjamin, who was ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department in the Barack Obama administration. “Whatever the story may be there, if Trump doesn’t take his national security advisor into a meeting with another head of government, he’s again being reckless and foolish beyond belief,” added Benjamin, now director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.
“It’s not good—and rare—for a national security adviser to be left out of a meeting like this,” Loch Johnson, the eminent intelligence historian at the University of Georgia, tells Newsweek. “The position depends on good chemistry between the president and the national security adviser and this event would suggest that the key elements of this relationship are already evaporating in the Petri dish.”
The absence of McMaster was not so important “as long as the ambassador is there,” says Evelyn Farkas, a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration. But she wondered whether an experienced diplomatic note-taker was there, “because...the rest of the interagency [national security team] needs to be told what happened.” Not just that, says Benjamin. “The national security advisor, or some other senior professional staffer, as opposed to an amateur like Kushner, is there to keep the president from straying into areas that he doesn’t know and preventing commitments that he doesn’t understand.” According to the Israeli insider blog Kafe Knesset, “at some point, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was invited to join the expanded meeting.” But even then, McMaster was left out.
All this is “just the latest example of a dysfunctional White House with a broken staff system,” says Chris Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency. “An empowered White House chief would... make sure McMaster is in the room for important meetings with heads of state. But Reince Priebus is not and has never been empowered. And Trump has no idea why that is essential to his success.”
“Of course, if this is a sign that McMaster is out of favor, well, God help us,” says Daniel Benjamin, who in the 1990s served on President Bill Clinton’s national security council. “McMaster doesn’t have a lot of expertise in Europe, Asia, diplomacy or economics, but he seems to have his head screwed on right, which can’t be said of many of the other members of the White House inner circle.”
This article has been updated with the news reports late Friday that Jared Kushner sought to establish a back channel with the Kremlin.
Jeff Stein can be reached somewhat confidentially via firstname.lastname@example.org and on Signal.