During the presidential transition, when a friend called me to discuss whether he should accept a national security post in the Trump administration, I advised him to do so. My thinking was that the more mature, thoughtful people we had in the administration, the better.
But over the last two weeks, I have come to think I was wrong. I no longer believe in the “adults in the room” theory of containing President Trump and the similarly erratic and ignorant people around him.
The prime reason I have come to believe I was wrong was the experience of watching Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second national security adviser, make a series of statements. On the evening of Monday, May 15, he appeared before cameras at the White House to respond to a Washington Post article reporting that the president had shared sensitive intelligence about terrorism with Russian visitors. This information was sufficiently detailed, some intelligence officials feared, that it might enable interested parties to determine the source of that intelligence.
Not so, said General McMaster. “The story that came out tonight as reported is false,” he stated emphatically.
The next day, he appeared again before the cameras. This time his line was: “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.” That’s what people in Washington say when you they can’t dispute the facts in a given article, but still dislike it.
On the president’s first foreign trip, McMaster has continued to defend Trump, for example, expressing over the weekend a lack of concern about reports that Trump’s son-in-law and confidant Jared Kushner sought to establish a secret, back-channel line of communication to the Russian government that would be hidden from the U.S. national security apparatus.
“We have backchannel communications with a number of countries,” McMaster said during a press availability in Italy. “What that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner, so I’m not concerned.”
Really? According to the Post’s story, which the White House did not dispute, “Kislyak reportedly was taken aback by the suggestion of allowing an American to use Russian communications gear at its embassy or consulate — a proposal that would have carried security risks for Moscow as well as the Trump team.” There’s no way that would be kosher. And so I fear that McMaster has confused protecting the president with protecting the country.
It saddens me to watch him do this. I’ve known McMaster since he was a major. He is an unusual officer. He has led troops in combat in two very different wars. He is one of our most thoughtful generals. And he wrote one of the best books about the Vietnam War, “Dereliction of Duty,” about the failures of senior American leaders during that war. Consider the two concluding sentences of that book: “The disaster in Vietnam was not the result of impersonal forces but a uniquely human failure, the responsibility for which was shared by President Johnson and his principal military and civilian advisers. The failings were many and reinforcing: arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self-interest, and, above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people.”
McMaster also remains on active duty, which makes him subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This holds him to a far higher standard of behavior than we have seen on videotape from Donald Trump. A military officer is required to tell the truth and shun conduct unbecoming of his or her position.
McMaster probably thinks that by staying at his post, rather than resigning in disgust, he is doing his duty. Specifically, he may think that if stepped down, he might well be succeeded by an alt-right ally of White House adviser Steve Bannon. As I said, I used to believe that too.
But I have watched and waited, and 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.
Thinking over this, I worry that having people like McMaster around Trump simply enables Trump. Mature national security specialists seasoned in the ways of Washington simply lend an air of occasional competence to an otherwise shambolic White House. By appearing before the cameras, looking serious and speaking rationally, they add a veneer of normality to this administration. In the process, they tarnish their own good names.
So I think that McMaster should step down—not just for his own good, but for the good of the country. What if he is replaced by a right-wing extremist who operates on an alternative set of “facts”? So much the better, I say.
Here’s why: The saving grace of Donald Trump as president is his incompetence. He knows almost nothing of how the federal government works. He seems to have been repeatedly surprised by the checks and balances written into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers. And he seems uninterested in learning.
Effectively, we have no president. Rather, we have someone who plays the president on television and on Twitter. Aside from a few of his pet subjects, such as immigration, Trump seems to have almost no effect on the workings of the federal government. What we have seen is a demonstration that it is actually a fairly robust establishment. On Iran policy, for example, Defense Secretary James Mattis seems to chug along by himself, pursuing an approach that is basically a somewhat more aggressive version of President Barack Obama’s policy. An ideologue likely would be as ineffective as national security adviser as Trump has been as president, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
In my revised view, the less control Trump has over the federal government, the better. Think of it this way: Which would be more dangerous, a Mafia family overseen by the cruel and competent Michael Corleone, or one led by his ineffectual brother Fredo? So, I say, Let Donald be Donald.