McMaster’s Problem Isn’t Trump. It’s Mattis and Kelly.

The "axis of adults" has been running foreign policy, but the national security advisor was quickly pushed to the kids' table.

White House National Security Advisor HR McMaster on December 13, 2017 in Washington,DC. (ERIC BARADAT/AFP/Getty Images)
White House National Security Advisor HR McMaster on December 13, 2017 in Washington,DC. (ERIC BARADAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, has spent a lifetime defying the odds — until now. Some in Washington have expressed surprise at the mounting reports that the career Army officer is being eased out of his White House job. But for anyone closely affiliated with the Trump administration’s national security operation, where McMaster has few remaining allies, the only surprise was that such reports had taken so long to credibly surface.

McMaster has always had a tense relationship with President Donald Trump. But for the last several months his relationships with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis, both of whom were once his strongest defenders, have deteriorated irreparably. At issue, several senior Pentagon officials tell Foreign Policy, is not McMaster’s discipline or competence, but his temperament and relative lack of experience.

McMaster now seems fated to depart the Trump White House as a senior military officer who was never the right fit either with Donald Trump, or with the so-called axis of adults shaping the administration’s foreign policy. McMaster, it turns out, was probably never a part of the latter club to begin with.

The White House denies the national security advisor is on the verge of leaving. “President Trump said that the NBC News story is ‘fake news,’ and told McMaster that he is doing a great job,” said Michael Anton, head of communications for the National Security Council, at a press conference last Thursday.

But one senior Pentagon official admits that McMaster’s rat-a-tat command style and habit of giving orders that would be instantly obeyed have proven ill-suited to Washington, where military officers regularly rub shoulders with senior civilians. “He’s a strong cup of tea,” he tells FP. “It may have helped if he’d had a D.C. tour in the Pentagon or NSC or somewhere.”

McMaster, by all accounts, was at ease in the multiple high-level Army commands in which he previously served. But in Washington, patience, nuance, a certain political deftness and a studied deference to senior civilian officials is prized — traits that were never among McMaster’s strongest qualities. McMaster has peremptorily interrupted presentations by civilian officials during NSC meetings which Trump attended, according to Pentagon officials, and, in several instances, was seen to be lecturing the president on the finer points of foreign policy. McMaster also has a bad habit of shaking his head in disagreement when civilian experts present their views during key White House meetings.

“You can get away with that when you’re the commander in charge,” a friend of McMaster’s for many years says. “But you can’t get away with it in the White House.” McMaster also has a habit of painting those who disagree with him in stark, and sometimes, offensive terms: Those who agree with him are “patriots,” those who don’t are “reflecting the enemy narrative.”

While McMaster and Trump never forged a close working bond, it was the national security advisor’s deteriorating relationship with Kelly and Mattis that finally tipped the balance against him. Kelly began thinking about replacing McMaster as early as last November, the senior Pentagon official notes, with the chief of staff advising Trump that it might be time to think about finding someone with whom the president was more at ease.

Kelly’s thinking about McMaster has the support of Mattis, according to several Pentagon officials speaking to FP. The defense secretary has been increasingly concerned with McMaster’s sometimes volcanic, and unpredictable, temper — and his tense relationship with Trump. For both Kelly and Mattis, the dust-up after McMaster’s appearance at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17 — when he declared that evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election was “incontrovertible,” only to be publicly contradicted by Trump one day later — was evidence that the tensions with the president would likely get worse.

“H.R. wears his emotions on his sleeve,” his friend of many years notes. “He’s volatile, and that’s a problem for a guy like Mattis, who prizes self-control. A couple of times Mattis has had to intervene with McMaster to calm him down. He doesn’t like doing that — and doesn’t think he should have to.”

But McMaster has had his own set of complaints. From the moment he took the job as the administration’s national security advisor, he was the odd man out in what was supposed to be a high-powered “axis of adults” shaping the Trump administration’s foreign policy. “This is a triumvirate, not a quartet,” a senior Marine officer who is close to Mattis confirmed to me several months ago, referring to the threesome of Kelly, Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “His title is ‘national security advisor,’ not ‘national security paper pusher.’ But that’s how he’s being treated.”

For military officers, even those personally unacquainted with Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster, none of this has come as a surprise. For them, the fact that Kelly and Mattis retired from the military as full generals, while McMaster remained in uniform as a three-star lieutenant general, almost guaranteed that the three would clash. “You have to understand the four-star mentality,” one senior retired Army officer says. “These guys are in the stratosphere, and that’s how they view themselves. And they’re right: the difference between a three-star and a four-star officer is the difference between playing youth baseball and playing the majors. These are the guys who really run things. The only one who gives them orders is the defense secretary and the president. So, you know, for four-star officers like Kelly and Mattis, a guy like H.R. might as well be a private.”

McMaster undoubtedly felt confident nonetheless, because he has spent a lifetime fighting the odds. Although he was one of the heroes of Operation Desert Storm’s Battle of 73 Easting, the celebrated tank battle against the Iraqis, many of McMaster’s fellow officers predicted that, despite his reputation, he would never make general officer rank — promotion to brigadier general (one star) or above. The word then was that McMaster was too opinionated, a view that was reinforced when he published Dereliction of Duty, his 1998 account of the U.S. military’s senior leadership during the Vietnam War. While the book has been celebrated for its criticism of senior military leaders during that conflict, that was less true in senior military circles and especially among those who knew and worked with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Earle Wheeler and Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson, who are among the targets of McMaster’s harshest criticisms.

Despite this, McMaster not only kept getting promoted, he burnished his reputation in last decade’s Iraq War when he deftly dampened the terrorist insurgency in Tal Afar. But even with this success, McMaster was only promoted to general officer rank at the insistence of his mentor, Gen. David Petraeus, who admired his skills. His competence simply couldn’t be ignored.

McMaster continued to defy the odds even after being named as Donald Trump’s national security advisor — and even while knowing he wasn’t the president’s first pick for the job. With Kelly’s backing, he imposed discipline on a national security staff that was in chaos after the firing of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, regularized the flow of strategy papers to the Oval Office, stripped the national security council staff of unqualified hangers-on, and weathered a storm of criticism from a gaggle of alt-right partisans that included Steve Bannon — until, that is, his habit of contradicting the president in public and his constant flare-ups became too much for his sometime defenders, John Kelly and James Mattis, to bear.

Which is why there are those that believe McMaster is more sinned against than sinner. “For John Kelly to say that H.R. is not a good fit is a hell of a thing,” a retired but still influential senior Army officer notes. “This is a guy who told the Congress to shut up, called one of its members an empty barrel, supports the president’s wacky views on immigration, and lectured the press on the good old days, whenever that was.” This officer also worries that McMaster’s departure means that America’s military policies will now be firmly in the hands of what he calls “the Marine triumvirate” — a list that includes not only Kelly and Mattis, who are both retired four-star Marine officers, but also Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. In part, the tensions between Mattis and McMaster results from this relationship; Mattis and Kelly admire Dunford’s political intuitions. “Ironically, it’s Dunford who probably has the best grasp of politics,” the senior Pentagon official says to FP.

The question now is not whether McMaster will be replaced, but where he will go — and just who he will replace him when he does.

There are those, especially in the army, who would like to see McMaster receive his fourth star. One of the ways to do that would be for him to replace Gen. Mark Milley, who is considered by many to be a weak army chief of staff, but Milley is not yet due for retirement. “That’s not going to happen,” the retired senior army officer with whom I spoke says. “Milley is a cipher, but this is the William Westmoreland Memorial Chair [a tongue-in-cheek reference to the former Vietnam commander who did nothing when he headed the army], so all Milley has to do is keep the seat warm.” And McMaster has been mentioned as the first head of the U.S. Army’s new Futures Command — which will be charged with modernizing the service — or in a similar Army-only four star role. But, this last weekend, the option of keeping McMaster in uniform seemed to fade, because doing so would require him to be in regular contact with Mattis as defense secretary. Which suggests the recent reports, that McMaster will likely take a position at the Hoover Institution’s Washington, D.C. office, are accurate.

But if he is to retire, according to North Carolina’s Richard H. Kohn, an expert on civil-military relations and McMaster’s graduate school advisor, Trump will have to ask him to leave. “McMaster is a solider, and he will soldier on until no longer wanted or needed,” Kohn says.

Of greater importance, at least for John Kelly, James Mattis, and Rex Tillerson will be finding the right person to take McMaster’s place. While it might not yet be apparent just who that will be, Kelly, Mattis, and Tillerson are likely to favor someone who will not only get along with the whimsies of Donald Trump, but work well with — that is, follow the lead of — the triumvirate of “adults” now firmly in charge of the nation’s foreign policy.

For those reasons, it now seems likely that the job will go to auto industry executive Stephen E. Biegun, and not the much more controversial John Bolton, long rumored to be among the front-runners for the job. A Pentagon consultant close to Mattis laughs at the mention of Bolton’s name, waving off any chance that he might be appointed as McMaster’s successor. “No way, there is absolutely no way that Bolton will get the job,” this official says. “Kelly doesn’t need another power center in the White House and Mattis has a veto here and, believe me, he would veto Bolton. And why wouldn’t he? Mattis is up to his neck in worrying about wars — the last thing he needs is another one.”

Mark Perry is a senior analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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