The Guerrilla Campaign Against McMaster Is Alive and Well

Now critics claim the national security advisor is hurting efforts to recruit senior White House intelligence advisors.

U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster gives a keynote speech in front of the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 13. (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images.)
U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster gives a keynote speech in front of the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 13. (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images.)

Months after a protracted campaign to oust President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, died down, “America First” critics appear to still be trying push the U.S. Army officer out of the White House.

Critics of the three-star general, who have long claimed McMaster is working against the president’s agenda, are now saying he’s hurting efforts to recruit members to a key intelligence advisory board, an accusation denied by two sources directly familiar with the potential recruits’ thinking.  

However, two sources with ties to the White House insist otherwise, telling Foreign Policy that Oracle Corporation CEO Safra Catz and Peter Thiel, a tech magnate, both turned down jobs to lead the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board at least partly over concerns about McMaster.

The suggestion that McMaster could be souring potential recruits to the board is just the latest chapter in internecine squabbles that have wracked the Trump administration since even before Inauguration Day. “Someone is always plotting something against another faction,” a former National Security Council official told FP. “There is always someone trying to oust McMaster, who arrives to discussions with well-prepared, thoughtful positions.”

This new allegation also comes amid renewed attacks by one of McMaster’s most open critics, Frank Gaffney, the president of the Center for Security Policy.

Gaffney on Wednesday blamed McMaster for having “wasted a precious year of Donald Trump’s presidency,” arguing he “sabotaged” President Trump’s campaign against “defeating ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’” The right-wing gadfly, who has long called for McMaster’s firing, has also previously claimed that former President Barack Obama could be Muslim.

Tips about McMaster “are coming from sources trying to discredit [him],” a source with knowledge of recruiting for the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board told FP. Those sources are “uninformed” and “malicious.”

Thiel never brought up McMaster as a reason for turning down the unpaid position, the same source told FP, while Catz never actually turned down the position and is waiting for additional information from the administration before making a final decision, a second source familiar with the matter told FP.

Appointments to the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board are rarely controversial.

The board is an independent group first started by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 to personally advise the president on the activities of the intelligence community. The shadowy group, rarely in the headlines, has had varying degrees of influence over the years. It was behind the creation of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the science and technology directorate at the CIA, and influenced former CIA Director Porter Goss’s resignation. It has reviewed major intelligence failures, like the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

In recent years, however, as independent presidential power has grown, the board’s influence has waned. President Trump has not yet appointed any members.

Thiel and Catz were offered spots to co-lead the intelligence advisory board, according to the two sources close to the White House — information confirmed by the additional two sources familiar with Thiel and Catz’s thinking. The advisory role positions would not require them to leave their jobs.

There’s no evidence, besides those sources, that Thiel or Catz necessarily considered McMaster a factor in their alleged decisions not to participate in the board. There are other reasons both may have refused.

Thiel does business with the intelligence community, particularly through his tech company Palantir, which could have raised conflict-of-interest questions if he were advising Trump about intelligence matters. Catz is a busy tech executive. 

Thiel also already has allies inside the administration, allowing him to remain influential behind the scenes. Kevin Harrington, a Thiel associate and formerly a hedge fund manager, took on the role of deputy assistant to the president for strategic planning in February. Harrington’s responsibilities include revamping the National Security Strategy, a periodically updated White House document that lays out the administration’s view of the world and security challenges.

The White House is expected to release the strategy on Monday.

Harrington “left a lucrative career … he came in with ideas … and was met with this huge bureaucracy,” one former NSC official told FP. “No doubt he’s reporting back to Thiel, saying ‘gosh, we can’t get these things done.'”

The Atlantic reported that Thiel turned down the intelligence advisory job this fall. A spokesman for Thiel declined to comment on the record. 

Oracle declined to comment on the record about Catz and the intelligence advisory board. 

McMaster, Trump’s second national security advisor, has been in the crosshairs of the nationalist wing close to Trump since the start of his tenure. Critics of the lieutenant general believe he is too representative of establishment, “globalist” foreign policy, particularly when it comes to Israel and Iran.

However, McMaster has been able to work closely with Israel. One source told FP that McMaster met with an Israeli delegation in Washington on Tuesday and had productive talks to discuss Iran’s influence in Syria, among other topics.

Adding to their animus, McMaster summarily dismissed some National Security Council officials appointed by his controversial predecessor, Michael Flynn, leading to cries he was trying to eliminate White House loyalists in favor of Obama holdovers. Those pushed out include the former intelligence head at the National Security Council, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, Middle East advisor Derek Harvey, and Rich Higgins, who penned an infamous memo about Trump’s enemies.

McMaster has also faced sharp pushback from America Firsters as he advocated traditional U.S. security stances, including a cruise missile strike on Syria in April and a beefed-up military presence in Afghanistan.

The National Security Council declined to comment on the record.

In September, Infowars, a broadcast and blogging site helmed by Alex Jones known for peddling conspiracy theories, wrote about a July dinner attended by McMaster and Catz, among others. Citing longtime Trump advisor Roger Stone, Infowars reported that McMaster called Trump a “dope” during the dinner.

Stone did not respond to a request for comment from FP.

Another article on that dinner, published in November by BuzzFeedalso claimed McMaster had negative things to say about the president and his team during a July dinner with Catz. Oracle and the White House formally denied McMaster made those comments. Cohen-Watnick now works at Oracle, and Catz appears to remain close to some White House officials.

In April, Bloomberg reported that the White House discussed multiple possible administration roles with Catz. 

Catz’s name has been in the running for numerous intelligence positions because of her technical and security knowledge and proximity to the campaign, according to a source. She was a top pick for the director of national intelligence, but turned it down. It’s possible she might still lead the intelligence advisory board. 

The same source mentioned other names being considered for the intelligence advisory board include former CIA Director Jim Woolsey and DynCorp financier Stephen Feinberg. Representatives for both men did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Jenna McLaughlin is Foreign Policy's intelligence reporter. You can reach her on Signal at 203-537-3949. @JennaMC_Laugh

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