McMaster Faces Limits in Overhauling Flynn’s NSC

A massive purge is unlikely given McMaster’s small budget and the staying power of his politically-connected subordinates.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster (L) as his national security adviser at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster (L) as his national security adviser at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s newly installed national security advisor was promised full authority to reorganize the National Security Council to his liking after his predecessor was forced to resign after misleading the vice president about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

But Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is discovering the limits to any ambitious overhaul at the NSC, leaving him relying on people in many cases recruited by the former national security advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and other Trump confidantes. A wholesale purge is not expected, and several key NSC officials focused on the Middle East and other vital areas will keep their positions in the near term, a senior White House official told Foreign Policy.

The survivors, whose fate came into question after Flynn’s surprise ouster, include: K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security advisor; Michael Anton, the deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications; and Victoria Coates, the senior director for strategic assessments who previously worked as an art historian and aide to Ted Cruz.

McFarland, a former Fox News commentator, secured her status through a conversation with Trump, the official said. “The president has asked K.T. to stay so she’s staying,” the official said.

Derek Harvey, the top Middle East adviser, worked with McMaster in Iraq. He is expected to continue on along with his deputies, including Joel Rayburn, Joe Rank, and Michael Bell.

There is also no indication that the Strategic Initiatives Group, a newly created sub-unit of the NSC that reports directly to Trump’s Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon and son-in-law Jared Kushner, is endangered. But Sebastian Gorka, a self-described counterterrorism expert on the SIG, has come under increasing scrutiny in the media for his questionable professional credentials.

One big — and still open question — is whether McMaster will have significant influence in a White House with big personalities like Bannon and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Bannon, in particular, has sought to jettison decades of U.S. foreign policy to focus on an “economic nationalist” agenda, which will further complicate McMaster’s job.

And McMaster faces more obstacles than just inheriting a roster of politically connected employees he might otherwise want to dismiss. He’s also taking over an operation that operates on a shoestring budget.

The appropriated budget for the staff of NSC and Homeland Security Council is $12.8 million. “That doesn’t hire many people,” Brian McKeon, the former chief of staff of the NSC from 2012 to 2014, told FP.

One way around those limits: Loaners from other government agencies. The Obama administration built a NSC of more than 400 people by getting nearly all of them on assignment from the Departments of Defense, State, and the Treasury.

“Most NSC staff are detailees from other agencies,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former NSC official and deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security. “At the end of the Obama administration, nearly 90 percent of the NSC staff were career on detail from other agencies.”

But the reliance on career staffers brings its own risks for the Trump White House. Detailees have come under increasing suspicion as the source of the various leaks that have shown the Trump administration as chaotic and riven by infighting and disorganization. McMaster could find himself under pressure to remove those officials.

During an interview about the leaks with Fox News last week, Trump said “I think that President Obama is behind it because his people are certainly behind it.”

“And some of the leaks possibly come from that group, which are really serious because they are very bad in terms of national security,” he added.

McMaster could send those detailees back to their respective agencies and recruit new ones, but such a move is unlikely to happen quickly, if at all. That’s because detailees aren’t quickly replaceable, and many of them are needed because they possess the institutional memory that helps the NSC operate from day to day.

“If you completely clean house, that will take a good bit of time,” said McKeon, noting that new recruits need to have the proper clearances before they start their job. “Detailees don’t just suddenly appear.”

Regardless of what McMaster decides to do about detailees, he could still make his presence known in other ways.

He is currently considering a proposal to undo some of the White House’s early and controversial moves, giving back permanent membership to the director of National Intelligence and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the Principals Committee, the top interagency group for debating national security issues, according to the New York Times.

He’s also considering merging the Homeland Security Council and the National Security Council, which would be a return to the formulation that existed during the Obama years. The Trump administration hived off the Homeland Security staff to curb Flynn’s influence. Now it’s likely that both councils will report to McMaster.

The two most significant moves McMaster has made so far are two reassignments. He sent David Cattler, deputy assistant to the president for regional affairs, to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and returned Brad Hansell, the acting deputy assistant to the president for transnational issues, to his previous job as the NSC’s senior director for transnational threats. Those moves were first reported by Politico.

Cattler was overseeing all the regional directors and, according to foreign officials who dealt with him, increasingly assuming the duties of the the deputy national security adviser. But Cattler was vulnerable because he was considered a “Flynn person,” having been picked by the retired general and having worked worked for him at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

But other big names on the NSC are likely safe from any McMaster housecleaning.

Matt Pottinger, a former journalist and Marine intelligence officer, and now the NSC senior director for Asia, is also a Flynn-connected staffer. Kevin Harrington, deputy assistant to the president for strategic planning, is most closely linked to Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal who has significant influence in Trump world. The White House official said both men “are safe as far as I know.”

But McMaster’s influence is still an open question. In February, McMaster, an expert in counterinsurgency, told colleagues in a closed door meeting that using the term “radical Islamic terrorism” was counterproductive because it alienates moderate Muslims. But days later, Trump used the term anyway in his first joint address to Congress, a fact some viewed as a sign of McMaster’s lack of clout.

The White House official rejected that view as “overblown.”