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McMaster caught in the middle as Mattis and Tillerson maneuver to constrain Trump on national security issues

McMaster caught in the middle as Mattis and Tillerson maneuver to constrain Trump on national security issues
National security advisor H.R. McMaster listens as President Trump meets with North Korean defectors in the White House on Friday. (Zach Gibson / Getty Images)

As President Trump appears to lurch from crisis to crisis on the world stage, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have quietly maneuvered to constrain an impulsive commander in chief, the latest sign of a national security team that is increasingly challenging the president.

Officials say the two senior Cabinet officers have slow-rolled requests for options on a wide range of policy goals, including exiting the Iran nuclear disarmament deal, reacting to missile strikes into Saudi Arabia by Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, pressuring longtime ally Pakistan by cutting U.S. military aid, and possible limited airstrikes on North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure.

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Trump is said to blame Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, bristling when his national security advisor has not presented the options he sought, or as quickly as he demanded them. That has given rise to multiple reports that McMaster could resign or be forced out in coming weeks, and added to the portrait of a White House in perpetual turmoil.

But when he walks into the Oval Office, McMaster is often caught in a carefully orchestrated manipulation by Mattis and Tillerson to slow the delivery of options they don’t want the president to take, according to two current White House officials and one former official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.

“They are going to hide the ball from the president to keep him from doing stupid [stuff], there’s no doubt about it,” said another former official, a national security expert who served in the Trump administration transition and asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations.

Other members of Trump’s national security team also have pushed back, increasingly in public, suggesting that some of the president’s top advisors have decided to speak out rather than acquiesce to what they see as false claims or dangerous policies.

In a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Feb. 13, six of the president’s hand-picked security chiefs — including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray — challenged or contradicted Trump’s stated views on Russia’s role in the 2016 election, the danger of Russian meddling in elections this fall, and whether a controversial GOP memo on surveillance was accurate.

Last week, Adm. Michael S. Rogers, head of the National Security Agency and the Pentagon’s Cyber Command, told Congress he was concerned the White House had not ordered any retaliation against the Russian meddling, or given him new authority to block it in the future — a barely veiled criticism of the president.

Russian President Vladimir “Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay and that therefore ‘I can continue this activity,’” Rogers told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 27. “Clearly what we have done hasn’t been enough.”

Even McMaster has pushed back — but then got bloodied for it.

During a security conference last month in Munich, Germany, McMaster said the federal indictment of 13 Russians in the special counsel investigation provided “incontrovertible” evidence of Moscow’s meddling the 2016 election.

Trump furiously tweeted back that McMaster “forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed” by the Russian campaign.

The practice of Cabinet officials actively sandbagging presidential requests has several precedents in modern American history, but not on this scale.

The Pentagon misled President Lyndon B. Johnson about the effects of escalating the Vietnam War, a pattern of devastating bureaucratic misdirection that McMaster studied for his doctoral thesis and was the subject of his 1997 book, “Dereliction of Duty,” which became a bestseller last year after he joined the White House.

President Reagan’s long-serving Secretary of State, George P. Shultz, was careful about what information he shared with Reagan about the Soviet Union because he was afraid Reagan might act on his bellicose impulses toward Moscow, historians say.

But with Trump, it is “a different kind of strategic withholding,” Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, said in a telephone interview.

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Trump’s advisors fear he will say something rash or take an unplanned action, and are likely calculating that by slow-walking a potentially explosive action, his attention will turn to something else, Zelizer said.

“Those kinds of fears of judgment or instantaneous action were never as great as they are today,” Zelizer said. “In part, advisors are just waiting out the time between his tweets and his fury, hoping to create some sort of stability.”

One concern among advisors close to Mattis and Tillerson is that McMaster is willing to present Trump with options the president has requested for a so-called bloody-nose military strike at North Korea in an effort to disable its nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles before Pyongyang achieves the ability to launch a nuclear-tipped missile at the United States.

McMaster has told staff that he would present the options, even though he agrees with most foreign policy experts that a limited series of U.S. airstrikes would spark a full-scale war on the Korean peninsula.

The Pentagon, which has warned of hundreds of thousands of casualties if war breaks out, has been slow to deliver the bloody-nose options to the White House, however.

In addition, Tillerson asked the State Department last month to make a list of all the sanctions and other actions — public and covert — that the United States and other nations are taking against North Korea. The goal, aides said, was to present them to Trump to convince him not to launch a preemptive strike.

Trump was frustrated in April after Iran-backed Houthi insurgents based in Yemen attempted to ram a high-speed boat packed with explosives into a Saudi Aramco fuel terminal. Trump demanded more U.S. military options to counter the possibility of similar attacks, but was not satisfied with the list he got.

Trump also asked for ways to deter Iran from sending short-range ballistic missiles into Yemen; Houthi rebels have fired the missiles into Saudi Arabia in recent months. Again, military options were slow in coming.

Trump publicly called for cutting aid to Pakistan in August, and privately railed against the country for not doing more against terrorist groups. He got nowhere until Jan. 1, when he tweeted about what he called Pakistan’s “lies & deceit.” Many saw the tweet as a way to short-circuit the bureaucracy.

Three days later, the State Department announced it was freezing as much as $1.3 billion in annual aid to Pakistan.

“Mattis and Tillerson are holding the line because they don’t want to rush to war any faster than we otherwise would,” Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council spokesman under President Obama, said in an interview. “It’s not that unrealistic to be concerned that if the president is in a petulant mood, he will start an actual war.”

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Feeding the friction at the White House is a widespread view among McMaster’s staff that Tillerson and Mattis don’t treat him as an equal.

When McMaster came to the White House he decided not to retire from the Army, and stayed on active duty as a three-star general, technically outranked by Cabinet officials and Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, where it is Cabinet secretaries bigfooting the national security advisor and diminishing that role, as Mattis and Tillerson seem to be doing,” Price said. “In my mind, it is pretty unprecedented.”

Even McMaster’s critics say he has brought order to what was a chaotic and unscripted policy shop under his predecessor, Michael Flynn, who was fired because he allegedly lied to Vice President Mike Pence and the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, about lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia. Flynn subsequently pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, part of a plea deal with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

While Trump had developed what seemed to be a genuine friendship with Flynn, forged in the crucible of the 2016 campaign, that didn’t extend to McMaster.

Now Trump and McMaster see each other nearly every day. Yet the battle-hardened Army general hasn’t developed a natural rapport with Trump.

“I don’t know that the president ever really clicked with him,” said Michael Allen, who worked on the George W. Bush National Security Council and advised the Trump transition. But, he added, McMaster has “made a positive difference under difficult circumstances.”

The most dramatic showdown came last summer, when Trump was furious he was being asked to certify the Iran nuclear agreement to Congress for a second time without a menu of tough actions to take.

Advisors, including Tillerson and McMaster, favored renewing the certification and had to repeatedly tell the president they hadn't prepared other options, and would have to tip off allies if Trump was about to reverse course.

The president was furious.

"This is never … happening again!” Trump said, using an expletive, according to two people, one who heard him and another who was briefed on the meeting. Neither would agree to be identified while discussing internal deliberations.

At that point, Trump’s personal interactions with McMaster “bottomed out,” one White House official said.

Since then, McMaster has been more forceful in demanding fulsome policy proposals that hew to Trump’s demands, a stance that has lead to repeated clashes with Mattis in particular — a Trump favorite the president calls “Mad Dog.”

Trump had lunch Thursday with Mattis and Pence in the president's private dining room. The president met with McMaster in the Oval Office, aides said.

The Pentagon denied that Mattis was deliberately slow-rolling any military options to the White House.

"The Secretary speaks to the President regularly. He provides options and his best military advice on a variety of national security matters," Lt. Col. Roger Cabiness, a Defense Department spokesman, said in a statement.

A State Department official similarly denied that Tillerson intentionally slows down deliberations to prevent Trump from taking action.

“The secretary takes seriously his job of providing the best possible advice to the president and does so on an almost daily basis,” said Steven Goldstein, undersecretary of state for public affairs. “Once the president makes a decision, we enforce that.”

Tillerson “feels it is important to make his position known if it sometimes differs from others, and he would expect others to do too,” Goldstein said. “Foreign policy is run at the State Department, so the fact that the secretary is vocal about what he believes how things should go is what people would expect from secretary of State.”

And the White House has sought to squelch reports that McMaster will soon be gone.

“Look, Gen. McMaster is not going anywhere,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday on Fox News. “As the president said yesterday in the Oval Office to a number of the people, he thinks he is doing a great job and is glad he is here.”

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