H. R. McMaster, lieutenant general in the U.S. Army and now the Trump administration’s (second) national-security adviser, has spent most of his career defending the U.S. against Islamists. Now, he’s being tarred as one.
Over the past month, McMaster, who replaced the scandal-laden Michael Flynn at the National Security Council in February, has sent packing three NSC aides: in late July, Rich Higgins, a director of strategic planning; last week, Derek Harvey, the NSC’s chief adviser on the Middle East; and on Wednesday, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, senior director for intelligence. The expulsions are the latest in an apparent battle for influence between McMaster and presidential adviser Steve Bannon. All three aides were perceived as Bannon loyalists.
Predictably, the knives are now out for McMaster in familiar quarters. Breitbart’s front page this morning was entirely devoted to McMaster, with headlines splashed up in typical breathless fashion: “McMaster ‘Deeply Hostile’ to Trump, Nationalist Agenda . . . Propping Up Iran Deal . . . Purging Pro-Israel NSC Staff . . . ” Laura Ingraham tweeted a New York Times article from January that detailed McMaster’s “break with the administration on Islam.” Meanwhile, alt-right conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich has been promoting a website called “McMaster Leaks,” a single page that lists McMaster’s various transgressions (you can even post your own!) and features, at the top, a cartoon depicting “McMasters” and David Petraeus as marionettes being manipulated by a flying George Soros, who, in turn, is a puppet of a green hand labeled “Rothschilds.”
It’s a truly imaginative conspiracy that ropes together al-Qaeda and Jewish bankers, but the dedication of these commentators to accuracy — or even plausibility — has always been minimal. So it is that “McMaster Leaks” includes “facts” such as: “McMaster fired Rich Higgins for writing a memo criticizing Islamic terrorism.” Back in reality, Higgins penned and circulated a memo that accused “globalists” and other elements of the “deep state” of aligning with “Islamists” to destroy the Trump administration. Ezra Cohen-Watnick, meanwhile, was one of two White House officials who secretly provided intelligence reports to House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) suggesting that former national-security adviser Susan Rice had improperly “unmasked” the identities of Trump officials in classified documents during last year’s campaign. (McMaster had previously attempted to fire Cohen-Watnick, but he was overruled by the president, acting at the behest of Bannon and Jared Kushner.) The removal of Derek Harvey, described by General Jack Keane in 2008 as “the very best intelligence analyst that the United States government has on Iraq,” comes as more of a surprise; however, he was a full-throated supporter of ditching the Iran deal and had reportedly clashed with Defense Secretary James Mattis on several occasions.
H. R. McMaster is far from perfect. His preference for keeping the Iran deal in place seems to this observer a significant mistake, for example. However, for those who have consecrated themselves to the priestly rites of Donald Trump’s cult of personality, McMaster’s staffing changes constitute nothing short of blasphemy.
To those less interested in a narrative of spooky forces out to get the president (Islamists, Davos attendees, Jews), McMaster is implementing the not particularly shocking sort of personnel changes one would expect of a man who is used to having his orders obeyed and has a key leadership position in one of the most fractious parts of one of the most fractious administrations in modern memory. It’s worth recalling that the National Security Council has been chaotic largely because of the president’s initial decision to appoint Michael Flynn to the national-security-adviser role — an obvious, gargantuan mistake even if we set aside the fact that Flynn had led “Lock her up!” chants at Trump campaign rallies — and because of Steve Bannon’s decision to join the body himself (also later abandoned), for reasons that never were satisfactorily explained by anyone in the White House. McMaster was brought in to sort out this fiasco.
Those who want to see the Trump administration succeed ought to work with the national-security adviser.
Again, McMaster is not flawless. But he has devoted his life to America’s defense, on the front lines and in the strategy room; he has thought seriously about the threats we face and how to address them; and, unlike his predecessor, he is not the type to do anything rashly.
Those who want to see the Trump administration succeed ought to work with the national-security adviser, not against him. H. R. McMaster is not the enemy.
— Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.