Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster became the latest general on President Donald Trump’s national security team to explain publicly that his job, as he sees it, is to help execute the commander-in-chief’s policies, not “keep him on the reservation,” as some critics hope.
McMaster, along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, both retired 4-star generals, have become frequent targets of Trump critics, who question why they serve and call for the trio to push back on Trump’s unpopular policies and personnel, or outright resign.
All three leaders, in one form or another, have said they have dutifully answered the call of a president that the nation elected, and therefore the call of the nation. It’s an unsurprising answer for three military men, but one that has clashed with more-partisan mindsets in political salons in Washington and public discourse nationwide. For some, it’s no surprise the trio is serving any president, Republican or Democrat, as long as they are not asked to do anything illegal. Others say the generals are no longer in a chain of command, and they should not promote Trump’s policy directives if they disagree on them, from the border wall to a travel ban aimed mostly at majority-Muslim countries.
McMaster on Monday was asked by Breaking Defense’s Sydney Freedberg whether he felt there was an adequately experienced team to carry out policy “process” around a president who was “impulsive” and new to Washington. The general eagerly took the opportunity to answer.
"There's nobody there to control the president or 'keep him on the reservation.' We're there to serve the president and help him to advance his agenda," McMaster said. The general was making a rare public appearance at the Institute of the Study of War’s invite-only, off-camera security conference. For a full hour, McMaster talked onstage with Mike Gordon, now of the Wall Street Journal, about the president, world events, and his job. McMaster explained how the White House team had developed new processes for working through and prioritizing national security issues, based on his frequent talks with prior national security advisors and the president’s preferences for short briefs.
McMaster can look and sound gruff, especially when reading statements in his general’s voice at the briefing room podium. But in private, he often remains soft-spoken and smiling, sprinkling long answers with chuckles and jokes between references to military history. Both McMasters were on display in Monday’s confab of high-level national-security veterans.
So, in his familiar way, he chuckled dismissively when questioned about Trump’s tweet-threats to make North Korean leaders disappear. (He said that speaking more politely to Kim Jong-Un in years past didn’t seem to make much difference.) And he pushed back on the notion that he — or anyone — can or should keep Trump in line.
McMaster’s answer drew intense criticism on Twitter from people who think the 3-star general should “serve the Constitution,” and not the president or the policy objectives (that they disagree with). But while McMaster advocated policy openly — a separate concern about an active-duty general’s role — he talks about his job the same way most generals do, which is to say, he’s there to provide policy options to his civilian commander.
Similarly, Mattis last month drew intense attention when he explained why he continued to serve under Trump despite potential policy differences. “You know, when a president of the United States asks you to do something — I don’t think it’s old-fashioned or anything, I don’t care if it’s Republican or Democrat, we all have an obligation to serve,” Mattis said. “That’s all there is to it. And so, you serve.”
Kelly, in an April speech, said members of Congress lashing out at Homeland Security Department officers “should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise, they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.” That line was criticized as “Trumpian,” in an August New Yorker column wondering whether Kelly had “taken control of the White House” or was even a “moderating influence,” on Trump’s immigration views.
McMaster also explained the reasoning behind some controversial changes at the National Security Council: “The president is not a policy wonk, at all. He’s a business person and what he demands is results. And what that has done is, it’s changed the way that we do things.” Among those changes: the NSC has gotten rid of long policy briefs. McMaster said Trump has requested his national security briefs shortened to focus on policy goals and objectives, so instead of 60-page tomes days before meetings, he receives “succinct summary” five-page briefs, which McMaster argued was an improvement on previous practice. “What the president has forced is discipline,” he said.
Naming no names, McMaster talked about Trump staffers who have already washed out of the White House. “Now, there are some people who have maybe misunderstood what their role was…and they thought their role was to advance a narrow agenda that may or may not be the president’s agenda, and to manipulate decisions to advance their agenda. And so, those people are largely gone. And they’re not going to get around John Kelly, for sure. And that’s good. And the president appreciates it, and we all appreciate it.”
McMaster said those changes are evidence not of turmoil but of a smart, sound process to aid the president. “You hear these stories about chaos, right? ‘There’s chaos in the White House.’ I haven’t seen any chaos…We were actually working in a sensible and effective way.”
To that, frequent Trump critic and senior editor at Defense One’s sister publication The Atlantic, David Frum, tweeted: “The first rule of controlling Trump … never talk about controlling Trump.”