Even as a group of retired generals are trying to curb the chaos within the Trump Administration, hard-right allies of Donald Trump are trying to oust one of them, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.
McMaster has clashed with Trump and advisors like chief strategist Steve Bannon since he took over as NSA in March, replacing Michael Flynn, dismissed over his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Trump complained that McMaster is a “pain” who talks too much and said that Flynn should be brought back. The general was unable to remove unwanted staff, such as the head of the intelligence directorate, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, although he did reverse Bannon’s effort to put himself on the National Security Council.
However, McMaster’s position appeared to be bolstered in recent weeks. He has been able to remove four NSC appointees linked to Trump and Bannon — Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland; director of Middle Eastern affairs Derek Harvey; Cohen-Watnick; and a director for strategic planning, Rich Higgins — and fellow retired general John Kelly became the new Chief of Staff last Monday after the chaos of Trump’s short-lived appointment of Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci. Fellow retired general James Mattis is another ally as Defense Secretary.
But since Monday, the hard-right have tried to fight back on websites and social media. Daniel Greenfield of the right-wing FrontPage declared a “McMaster coup” in which “the National Security Council is becoming a national security threat”. The provocateur Mike Cernovich circulated his video commentary, “H.R. McMaster is a Deep State Plant who Opposes the Trump Agenda.” Roger Stone, who advised Trump in 2016 and still claims to be close to the White House, chimed in with a reference to the Trump-Russia investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller:
No one voted for H.L McMaster- he is a neocon quisling, helping Mueller line up @realDonaldTrump for the take-down
— Roger Stone (@RogerJStoneJr) August 4, 2017
The campaign is not just on the right-wing fringe. Sean Hannity, a Trump family friend who dined at the White House last week, tweeted, “Does H.R. McMaster need to go?”
Rumors are being fed that one solution to the McMaster problem would be for Trump to dispatch him to command US and NATO forces in Afghanistan: “He wants to send more troops to Afghanistan, so we’re going to send him.”
By Friday night, the chatter was so loud that a brief statement had to be put out in Trump’s name: McMaster is a “good man” and they are “working very well together”.
The Obama-“Islamist” Blacklisting
One of the allegations being spread is that McMaster — who served with Central Command and in Iraq before excelling in capabilities and training command in the US — is appeasing “Islamists”.
The scenario is that Harvey, a former Army colonel who was also in Iraq, was not removed from the NSC because of questions of his management of personnel. Instead, his defenders claim the cause as his clear-eyed perception of the threat from Islam — a necessity that was reinforced because of McMaster’s protection of holdovers from the Obama era on the NSC staff:
All you had to do was name Islamic terrorism as the problem and oppose the Iran [Nuclear] Deal. If you came in with Flynn, you would be out. If you were loyal to Trump, your days were numbered.
The portrayal is reinforced by McMaster’s removal of Higgins, who circulated a memorandum claiming a conspiracy between Islamists and “globalists” — bankers, the “Deep State”, and the “Left” — against Trump. Higgins also pressed for declassification of Obama Adminstration directives which hard-right polemicists claim prove the connections of Obama and his advisors with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.
Other “evidence” of McMaster’s affinity for Islamists includes his encouragement of the removal of “radical Islamic terrorism” from Trump’s speech at the Riyadh Summit in May.
Frank Gaffney, a leading zealot promoting Islamophobic conspiracy theories, wrote that if McMaster was not “fired for sabotaging” Trump’s agenda, “it will be the McMaster Administration”:
America needs Rich Higgins in office, not HR McMaster.
— Frank Gaffney (@frankgaffney) August 3, 2017
Two “former senior NSC officials” — it is not clear if either or both were among the dismissed Harvey, Cohen-Watnick, and Higgins — propped up the claims of plotting in an article published by the Daily Caller on Thursday:
Everything the President wants to do, McMaster opposes. Trump wants to get us out of Afghanistan — McMaster wants to go in. Trump wants to get us out of Syria — McMaster wants to go in. Trump wants to deal with the China issue — McMaster doesn’t. Trump wants to deal with the Islam issue — McMaster doesn’t. You know, across the board, we want to get rid of the Iran deal — McMaster doesn’t.
It is incredible to watch it happening right in front of your face. Absolutely stunning….
I know that the President isn’t a big fan of what McMaster’s doing. I don’t understand why he’s allowing a guy who is subverting his foreign policy at every turn to remain in place.
The Obama-Leakers Spin
Another front of the hard-front attack is that McMaster is not only refusing to fire Obama “holdovers” — the general has said that he does not believe in the term, only in the retention of the best-qualified staff — but is protecting officials who are leaking information to the media.
That attack has been fed this week with the revelation of McMaster’s letter in late April absolving his Obama-era predecessor, Susan Rice, of the charge of “unmasking” the identities of Trump associates — including Michael Flynn — in intelligence reports of contacts between those associates and Russian officials. McMaster refused to impose any limits on Rice’s access to documents from her tenure as National Security Advisor.
Despite other officials saying that Rice had committed no offense, despite no evidence that Rice was involved in any leaks of identities to the media, and despite the statement of the GOP head of the Senate Intelligence Committee that “unmasking” was a false furor, the hard right took McMaster’s action as a sign of his betrayal of Trump.
Commentator Laura Ingraham, who was considered for a post in the Trump Administration, tweeted:
Obama holdovers at NSC or State Dept who are leaking shd do real time for these leaks. Why has McMasters fired actual Trump supporters?
— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) August 3, 2017
The full-blown conspiracy theories are now in motion. Cernovich set up a website called McMaster Leaks, on which he alleged the general had “been leaking information to David Petraeus” — a military colleague of McMaster’s and CIA Director under Obama who was once a candidate to replace Flynn as NSA — and “has had direct contact with George Soros”, the billionaire philanthropist.
The site’s main page initially displayed a large cartoon of the Rothschilds controlling a George Soros puppet, which in turn controlled puppets representing McMaster and former CIA director David Petraeus. The hand labeled “Rothschilds” was later relabeled “Saudis” because Cernovich did not want a showdown over anti-Semitism: “If everybody wants to complain, then fine—I’ll just put the Saudis at the top.”
The assault is the latest effort by Cernovich to take down McMaster and his staff, a campaign which led the National Security Advisor to bring up the agitator at an NSC senior-directors meeting last month. “He…aid, ‘This guy’s been targeting our people, he is posting personal information that has to have come from the inside,’” said “a source close to McMaster”.
But while Cernovich may be outlandish with his conspiracy rhetoric and images, he is not alone. One of the former NSC officials who spoke with the Daily Caller said McMaster is a “sycophant” of Petraeus.
Echoing claims about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 US election, the anti-McMaster campaign on social media also has a Russian dimension. Twitter accounts linked to the earlier influence operations have promoted the hostile articles with hashtags such as #FireMcMaster and #deepstate.
On Friday, the accounts were pushing the story about McMaster letting Rice keep her security clearance. Shares of a Breitbart article, “NSC Purge: McMaster ‘Deeply Hostile to Israel and to Trump'” increased by 2,300% since Wednesday.
What’s next? So far no current Trump officials — in a White House in which retired general John Kelly, as new Chief of Staff, is supposedly clamping down on factional disputes — have joined the anti-McMaster campaign as unnamed sources, let alone in public statements. And with Trump now on vacation for 17 days, the tempest may die down.
Just before leaving for the break,
But with the pressure of the Trump-Russia investigation increasing and given the unpredictability of the fractious Trump as well as deep-seated differences in approach within the West Wing, nothing is assured.
Pete Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who worked closely with McMaster, summarizes:
There is a split in the White House between the Bannon camp of ideologues and the McMaster-Mattis-[Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson camp of more centrist intellectuals. And this conflict is playing out in real time as the Trump administration tries to flesh out its foreign policy and national security policy.