ĎAxis of Adultsí is Breaking Apart
By Eli Lake
July 21, 2017
At a town hall for National Security Council staffers last
week, their boss, H.R. McMaster, had a message for those assembled.
"There's no such thing as a holdover," the national security adviser
said, referring to the career professionals who stayed on the council after the
presidential transition in January. McMaster went on to say that career staffers
are loyal to the president.
He was responding to a series
of tweets from the blogger Mike Cernovich, who singled out some
lower-level staffers, by name, as alleged leakers. He was standing by the people
who worked for him.
And while itís admirable when a boss backs his workers,
this event also highlights McMaster's own precarious position at the six-month
mark of the Donald Trump administration. Behind the scenes, McMaster has had
trouble replacing career staffers with new people from the Pentagon and the
State Department. Until recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary
of Defense James Mattis had blocked many career public servants in their
departments from being detailed to the National Security Council. This
meant, in practice, that officials who served in Barack Obamaís White House
who were supposed to return to their bureaucratic homes stayed on longer at the
council than their initial terms.
Most of the time, this would not be much of an issue. But
the Trump White House is obsessed with leaks and the disloyalty of the
administrative state. It's touchy. When McMaster came into the job in February,
requests from other White House senior staffers to purge holdovers
perceived to be disloyal to the new president.
This sub rosa conflict punctures a bit of Washington
conventional wisdom about the court politics of the Trump White House. Call it
the axis of adults. It includes McMaster, Tillerson and Mattis, and is seen as a
counterweight to the populists such as senior strategist Steve Bannon. It's the
pros against the amateurs, the restrainers against the encouragers.
And it's a comforting thought to the foreign policy
establishment. But like most conventional wisdom in the Trump era, it's not
exactly right. White House and administration officials tell me that McMaster
has become estranged from Mattis and Tillerson in particular. As a result, he
has seen much of his influence over the policy-making process diminished, and
has become isolated inside the government.
Some of this is because of Trump himself. The president, as
he showed again this week in the interview with the New York Times, is
mercurial. (See Jeff
In the case of McMaster, administration officials tell me
he is perceived not to be a reliable messenger of the president's wishes. What's
more, administration figures tell me, principals including Tillerson, Mattis and
CIA director Mike Pompeo have a direct line to Trump. They can go around
McMaster and make their case on interagency disputes directly to the commander
For a national security adviser, this dynamic is deadly.
Traditionally, this job is supposed to coordinate policy throughout the
government to meet the directives of the president. That job is next to
impossible if the adviser isn't seen as speaking for the president. While all
administrations experience infighting, rarely has a national security adviser
been this weak.
Some of this has made its way into the press. This week,
there were reports that
McMaster opposed the meeting Trump held with Putin earlier this month at the
G-20 summit. A senior White House official told me this was wrong and that he
encouraged the bilateral meeting in planning discussions. Still, it was
Tillerson and not McMaster who attended the small Russia parley with Trump and a
This dynamic has played out on other issues too. McMaster,
for example, has asked the Pentagon for contingency plans for Syria on how many
U.S. troops will be needed once Islamic State strongholds are cleared. The
Pentagon has slow-rolled the requests. On Qatar, Tillerson has run the diplomacy
to defuse the crisis with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with little
input from the NSC.
McMaster has also seen his authority wane inside the west
wing. Since taking the job in February, he has gone through four executive
assistants, an important post that serves as the gate-keeper to the national
security adviser and oversees his schedule.
McMaster has also clashed with Tom Bossert, the assistant
to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. On the organization
chart for the White House, Bossert reports directly to Trump. He has key NSC
directorates report to him as well, though Bossert and McMaster share
responsibilities on counterterrorism. At the last minute, McMaster tried to
cancel a trip Bossert took in June to Israel to address a cybersecurity forum,
reflecting concerns from other department heads that NSC staffers were
overstepping their roles in foreign travel. McMaster eventually withdrew his
objections, and Bossert attended the conference
in Tel Aviv.
None of this necessarily means that McMaster will soon be
relieved of his duties. As anyone following the palace intrigue of the Trump
inner circle knows, the status of the presidentís aides and advisers can turn
on a dime. But it does help explain why foreign policy so far has been chaotic
for the Trump administration. The man who is supposed to be coordinating it is
being undermined from outside and within the White House.