H.R. McMaster Should Stay Put, For Now

Who would replace him?

Tom Ricks has known and respected H.R. McMaster many years. So have I. Ricks argues in this Politico article that McMaster should step down as national security adviser. He makes a compelling case, but I disagree with his conclusion.

To be sure, I share Ricks’ discomfort with the extent to which McMaster is being put in the role of making disingenuous statements–bordering at a minimum on falsehoods if not actually crossing that line–in defending President Trump from the consequences of his own missteps.

McMaster did this most notoriously when he told the White House press corps, inquiring whether the president had leaked code-word secrets to the Russians:  “The story that came out tonight as reported is false.” This may not technically be a lie—the words “as reported” serve as some protection assuming there was some detail in the Washington Post that was inaccurate—but it comes pretty darn close. Even Trump himself now implicitly acknowledges that he did, in fact, share the information based on Israeli intelligence.

Trump’s defense is that as president he has a right to declassify information, and that’s true. In this case, there is no evidence that there was a deliberate decision made, after consulting all the relevant parties, to declassify the intelligence in question. Rather, Trump seems to have done so impulsively and without understanding the full ramifications of his actions. Thus, McMaster was also on a limb when he said the next day that “the premise of that article is false—that in any way the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or that resulted in any kind of lapse in national security.”

McMaster has compromised himself two more times this past weekend. First, when he said after the president’s trip to Europe: “It is a matter of fact that the United States, the president, stands firmly behind our Article 5 commitments under NATO.” The U.S. may have historically stood behind Article 5—the mutual defense provision of the alliance—but, as McMaster well knows, Trump pointedly did not affirm his own support for Article 5 in Brussels, to the shock and dismay of our European allies.

Second, McMaster compromised himself by defending Jared Kushner after a report appeared in the Washington Post that the president’s son-in-law had tried to set up a secret backchannel to Russia before the inauguration, even suggesting the use of the Russians’ own communications equipment for this purpose. “We have back-channel communications with a number of countries,” McMaster said. “What that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner, so I’m not concerned.”

As McMaster well knows, such communications are not normally undertaken before an inauguration by an adviser who holds no formal foreign-policy position. They’re definitely not made following a Russian intervention in the U.S. election. Most importantly, they avoid using a hostile state’s communications gear for the transmittal of sensitive information. This is anything but normal, and for McMaster to claim otherwise is disingenuous.

Ricks is right that McMaster is not conforming to the highest standards of conduct expected from a serving general—“A military officer is required to tell the truth and shun conduct unbecoming of his or her position.” But I’m simply not prepared to suggest that McMaster should quit, based on what we now know.

Ricks wrote: “I don’t see McMaster improving Trump. Rather, what I have seen so far is Trump degrading McMaster. In fact, nothing seems to change Trump. He continues to stumble through his foreign policy—embracing autocrats, alienating allies and embarrassing Americans who understand that NATO has helped keep peace in Europe for more than 65 years.”

The stumbles are real, and so is McMaster’s degradation, but how do we know that McMaster is not, in fact, stopping Trump from acting on his worst instincts? In fact, prior to his deeply problematic foray to Europe, Trump was acting in a somewhat more responsible fashion by dropping campaign rhetoric about labeling China a currency manipulator or calling NATO obsolete or lambasting Islam. It seems fair to ascribe some of the toning down to McMaster’s influence.

The ultimate reason why I think McMaster should stay at his post, at least for now, is that I am terrified by who would replace him. Recall that McMaster himself was hired to replace Mike Flynn, who was on the Turkish and Russian payrolls while advising Trump. The president has spoken longingly of his desire to bring Flynn back to the White House.

The national security adviser is one of the most important positions in the government. It is not just a normal staff job: It is a job with immense repercussions for the entire world.

The recently deceased Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the most influential national security advisers of all time, single-handedly helped to avert World War III in 1979: He was awakened in the middle of the night and told that the Soviets had just launched a nuclear-missile strike against the United States. President Carter had three to seven minutes to respond before the missiles hit. Luckily Brzezinski was wise enough to seek confirmation, and before long he learned that the “attack” was only a training tape running in the NORAD computers. But imagine what would have been the fate of humanity if Brzezinski had made the wrong call.

Who would you rather receive that 3 a.m. phone call today: H.R. McMaster or a possible successor in the Flynn mold? I opt for McMaster. I continue to believe that he performs a valuable restraining role in the White House.

That said, McMaster needs to realize that his sparkling reputation is being damaged by his willingness to do damage-control in public for the president. McMaster needs to make clear that he will not only not lie; he will not deceive on the president’s behalf. And if that leads Trump to fire him, so be it. But it’s not yet time for McMaster to resign.