Retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the former national security adviser and the driving force behind the National Security Strategy of President Donald Trump’s administration, set off a firestorm of palace intrigue last week. In a speech to a conservative Washington think tank where he now works, McMaster called unnamed White House officials “a danger to the Constitution.”
McMaster serves as chairman of the Center on Military and Political Power, a project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. In a speech Wednesday that focused on the strategic importance of the war in Afghanistan, McMaster described the three kinds of advisers in the president’s service: those who seek to provide information to aid in decision making, those who seek to push their own agendas, and those who, as POLITICO reported, “cast themselves in the role of saving the country, even the world, from the president.”
Three kinds of advisers
Casting himself in the first category, he described the other two groups as the danger. The reaction to the general’s statements was swift and stinging, albeit anonymous.
In a Washington Examiner story ostensibly about the risks of military intervention in Venezuela, an anonymous White House official evoked the name of James Mattis, the well respected retired Marine general and former secretary of defense. According to this source, Mattis called McMaster a “moron” who was hellbent on running the U.S. into a war with North Korea or Iraq.
The previously unrevealed outburst is said to have come at the end of a conference call that followed a 2017 North Korean missile test launch. The source said that McMaster was asking for military response options, a request Mattis allegedly took issue with.
Mattis remains a popular figure among the public at large, and especially so among the military rank-and-file. Enlisting him, willingly or not, in a skirmish with McMaster is smart. But is it believable?
As a career military officer, and former commander of the U.S. Central Command (the most powerful and influential of the unified combatant commanders), Mattis knows that developing options for military response to North Korean aggression was a prudent move. Asking for options to present the president does not mean advocating for them. The Joint Staff and the Pacific Command staff likely had them underway already.
Unless there is much, much more to the story, the anonymous source seems to be invoking the general’s name in vain to score points. It wouldn’t be the first time someone put words in Mattis’s mouth. After the publication of Washington mainstay Bob Woodward’s book on the early days of the Trump administration, Mattis vigorously denied the nasty things attributed to him.
“While I generally enjoy reading fiction, this is a uniquely Washington brand of literature, and [Woodward’s] anonymous sources do not lend credibility,” Mattis said in a statement.
I eagerly await his reaction to what he’s alleged to have said about McMaster.