The White House’s credibility crisis continues to deepen, and experts say it may now reach one of the few remaining independent voices in the Trump administration: national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
After former national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign in February when it emerged that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about contacts he’d had with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, McMaster arrived to right the ship.
His selection was especially notable because many saw him as the antithesis to Flynn.
He was brought in as someone who was beyond reproach.
“He was brought in as someone who was beyond reproach, who wasn’t in [President Donald] Trump’s inner circle, had a stellar reputation, and was supposed to be distanced from Trump,” said Jon Michaels, a professor and expert on national security at UCLA Law.
Like Secretary of Defense James Mattis, McMaster was revered by his troops while serving in the army and earned a great deal of respect from soldiers. He is an expert on military strategy, counterinsurgency, and history, and is not known for being a ‘yes’ man. “Put simply: McMaster isn’t a political guy, unlike other officers who are trying to jockey for position and move up their careers,” Business Insider’s Paul Szoldra wrote after Trump chose him.
McMaster has historically “been willing to risk an awful lot to speak truth to power,” said Claire Finkelstein, a professor and Director at the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
But the former Army Lieutenant General has come under fire in recent days, as the White House was hit with a flurry of news stories that raised more questions about the Trump camp’s ties to Russia.
Now, experts are beginning to question if McMaster’s role has become dangerously politicized, and whether that could pose a threat to the US’ national security.
Typically an apolitical position
When The Washington Post broke an explosive report in which intelligence officials alleged that Trump shared highly-classified information with Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting, McMaster went in front of cameras to call the story false as reported and to defend the president’s actions as “wholly appropriate.”
His defense came as intelligence officials expressed deep concerns about Trump’s handling of sensitive information, as well as the risks it posed to Israel, the source of the intel and a key US ally.
Though the national security adviser is a political appointee — in that he is chosen by the president — the role has historically been relatively apolitical when compared to that of other White House staff. This is because the national security adviser has “enormous influence” over issues of war and peace, and presidents of both parties have tried to keep political concerns away from that area, according to Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer for the National Security Agency and the CIA.
Experts say there is some justification for McMaster speaking out in this case, because he was brought out to address a national security concern.
“The Trump-Russia controversy touches international politics in a way that others do not. … If you’re talking about whether Russia influenced the US elections, if you’re talking about the US president meeting with Russian officials and giving them classified information — that is hardcore foreign policy stuff, and McMaster has, or at least had, very high credibility in that area,” Deitz said. “So it seems logical that he would be pushed out to lead that parade.”
Did it assuage concerns our allies may have had about sharing intelligence? Probably not.
But choosing him as a spokesperson may have done more harm than good.
In this case, McMaster’s “going before the press didn’t do anything to limit” fallout from revelations that Trump disclosed code-word information to the Russians, Michaels said.
“At the end of the day, are we now all saying, ‘Oh, OK, everything’s all hunky-dory because McMaster stood up there’? Did it assuage concerns our allies may have had about sharing intelligence? Probably not.”
Deitz concluded that Trump doesn’t have many alternatives to McMaster.
“If you look at people in this White House and compare them to people in the Obama or Bush White House,” he said, “there are not that many people who have terribly high credibility.”
Michaels echoed that assessment and highlighted the unique circumstances the Trump administration faces.
“Almost everything right now feels new and different,” he said. “The fact that McMaster has to go out and talk about what the president may or may not have said about [former FBI director] Comey … all of this stuff feels weird and unusual, and I doubt many national security advisers have been called in to do this particular type of rebuttal or contextualization.”
“There are only so many people in the White House who are taken credibly at this point, and McMaster is one of them,” he added. “So it’s a trade off.”
If anything, experts say McMaster’s selection as the White House’s point man following the Post’s report likely diminished his credibility and the credibility of the US in the process, and it also appeared to politicize a national security issue.
Glenn Carle, a former CIA operative and national security expert, compared McMaster’s selection to former President Bill Clinton’s decision to have female Cabinet members speak out on his behalf during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“A lot of the women involved resented that and thought it was inappropriate, and Clinton was widely criticized for politicizing them because they were females,” Carle said. “Here, McMaster was politicized because he’s a general.”
And while the credibility of White House operatives like Kellyanne Conway and press secretary Sean Spicer has taken a hit since Trump assumed office, the risks of McMaster losing credibility are significantly greater given his position as the chief national security consultant.
‘Not McMaster’s finest moment’
Experts say that McMaster is likely aware of the delicate situation he’s in.
McMaster’s loyalties are “naturally divided,” Finkelstein said. “He probably feels like he owes the president, as commander-in-chief, the greatest loyalty he can summon up under the circumstances. But I’m also guessing that standing in that room with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, he felt that he himself was in a fairly compromised position.”
There have been other instances where that internal discrepancy may have been evident. Shortly after news broke that Trump had reportedly called Comey a “real nut job,” and said firing him had taken “great pressure” off during the Oval Office meeting with Russian officials, McMaster appeared on ABC’s “This Week” on May 21. The White House has not disputed the report.
When host George Stephanopoulos asked McMaster about why Trump made comments about the FBI’s Russia probe to Kremlin officials, McMaster said Trump “feels as if he is hamstrung in his ability to work with Russia” because of media coverage around the topic.
“It’s very difficult to take a few lines, to take a paragraph out of what appear to be notes of that meeting, and to be able to see the full context of the conversation,” he added.
That interview was “not McMaster’s finest moment,” Finkelstein said, adding that it likely reflected his need “to act within the military chain of command, while also being aware that these actions and remarks by the president are extremely dangerous for the country.”
‘If the national security adviser is seen as a stooge or lackey …’
McMaster is still the most independent voice in the White House, experts say, but if he continues ceding ground to the political wing, it may affect the relationship between the administration and the military.
“The go-between on military matters are the joint chiefs and the national security adviser,” Michaels said. “If the national security adviser is seen as a stooge or lackey of an administration that the military may be wary of, it’s going to diminish [McMaster’s] capacity to be seen as a reliable person to call in the White House for critical issues.”
And that logic applies to foreign affairs, too.
“It’s not surprising when a politician or statesman presents a favorable interpretation of an issue for the administration,” Carle said. But when the national security adviser goes in front of cameras and says something that is “just not true, that harms the US’ ability to interact successfully and win the support of our foreign interlocutors.”
“Truly, your word is very important” when dealing with national security, Carle said, adding that credibility is among the chief concerns allies consider when deciding which and how much intelligence to share with another country.
The US’ national security apparatus relies not just on heads of state calling each other, Michaels said, but on networks of high-ranking bureaucrats like McMaster whose credibility is crucial to keeping things running.
“There’s no more critical moment for that than now,” he said, “given the lack of credibility and expertise of the commander-in-chief.”
And in the event that the US is thrust into a genuine national security crisis and McMaster comes out to talk to the public or to the US’ allies about it, Deitz said, “the question people are going to have in the back of their minds is, ‘Are we getting this straight or is this just a political job?'”
McMaster is still a very respected figure, Finkelstein said.
“But he will lose all efficacy as a protector of national security if he simultaneously loses that independent voice he was known to have.”