Empowered by a new chief of staff and goosed by a president angry over a lack of progress, National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is sweeping out some of the White House’s most fervent ideologues and Trump loyalists.
But McMaster has to move fast, senior administration officials tell The Daily Beast. The hardline nationalists at the core of Trump’s political base have declared war on the president’s top national security aide, and his own role is by no means secure.
“The president hasn’t liked the plans he’s been presented on Iran, Afghanistan, or ISIS,” one of the officials told The Daily Beast. “The process hasn’t worked like it should,” to produce the innovative plans President Donald Trump tasked his team with crafting—plans that look different from what the Obama administration, or even the Bush administration, tried before.
So McMaster has been removing anyone on his team who either obstructed his own vision or had trouble rallying the other agencies around particular policy, like NSC intelligence director Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who was let go on Wednesday. The officials said he’d had a “rough start” with McMaster as the two didn’t see eye to eye on some aspects of Mideast policy, and Cohen-Watnick—a holdover hired by now-resigned National Security Adviser Michael Flynn—was blamed for anti-McMaster leaks to the media. The former DIA analyst was also openly criticized by CIA officers who saw the 31-year-old as inexperienced, which didn’t help him win over the powerful agency. Cohen-Watnick could not be reached for comment.
McMaster has also removed anyone who was directly responsible for the plans that most frustrated Trump, like senior Mideast adviser to the president and retired Col. Derek Harvey.
Harvey himself was hawkish on Iran, but other agencies contributing to the discussion were reluctant even to answer questions about possible courses of action that might draw the U.S. into a shooting war with Tehran.
A senior administration official said Harvey was stuck in a Catch-22 situation. He struggled to get lower-level staff across the national security spectrum to answer questions in a timely fashion so he could turn requested policy papers around for McMaster, especially without Trump political appointees in place at the Pentagon and State Department to drive the debate.
But McMaster blamed him anyway. It didn’t help that Harvey was close to Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whose Mideast portfolio overlaps with McMaster’s responsibility, the senior official said.
A McMaster spokesman and Harvey did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.
Last month McMaster also fired Rich Higgins, an official in the NSC’s strategic planning office, after he penned and circulated a controversial memo alleging a conspiracy by “Islamists” and “cultural Marxists” to undermine the Trump administration. Higgins did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
The firings buy McMaster time to put his own people in place, but if he doesn’t come up with new plans quickly, his own role is at risk. The clean sweep drive has also made his tenure more precarious in that it has infuriated elements of Trump’s political base that see it as a purge of nationalist, anti-Islam ideological elements—officials dubbed by some in the White House as the Flynnstones, a reference to former adviser Flynn.
The leading Iran, Afghan, and ISIS plans that have either been presented to Trump or are under consideration by his Cabinet secretaries all resemble strategies assembled under the Obama administration, with slight modifications or increases to numbers of troops, or tightening of sanctions or cooperating on even more local forces.
A furious Trump has sent his National Security Council adviser and staff back to the drawing board on the Afghan plan and parts of the still-evolving Iran plan, griping in essence that doing the same thing as before and expecting a different result is the platitudinal definition of insanity.
The Iraq and overall ISIS plans are still being worked out, not ready for the Oval Office months after Trump had expected to review them, one of the senior administration officials said.
The recommendations on Iran were that the Trump administration re-certify that Iran is complying with the JCPOA—commonly known as the Iran deal—then discover new ways to enforce it, while also finding new ways to make life difficult for Iran and its proxies in places like Yemen and Lebanon. That was deemed as not creative or aggressive enough by Trump, according to the two administration officials.
On the Afghan war plan, Trump’s top Cabinet officials have all tacitly backed the Pentagon proposal to increase U.S. troop levels by up to 5,000 and keep the mission open-ended instead of setting a public deadline, as President Barack Obama did.
“None of the principals have spoken against that plan,” said one of the senior administration officials. “It’s other parts of the government that are lobbying against it,” one of the officials said.
He was referring to the America First-style nationalists who want to withdraw completely or outsource the problem to contractors, a sort of modern-day East India Company occupation of Afghanistan, put forward by former Blackwater chief Erik Prince.
“We keep going back and forth on it,” one defense official said of the wrangling with the NSC to come up with a new, more innovative plan.
A proposal to negotiate U.S. military assistance in return for commercial access to Afghan minerals was briefly hailed inside the NSC as the possible breakthrough Trump was looking for—showing his base that he wasn’t just going to keep spending U.S. blood and treasure in Afghanistan and get nothing in return.
But that plan has somewhat faded as other advisers pointed out that U.S. companies have struggled to safely access the areas they would mine. Nor do they have a cost-effective way of shipping such heavy cargo out for processing. It doesn’t help that China already negotiated lucrative deals with the new government shortly after the Taliban regime collapsed.
On Trump’s frustrations and internal administration divisions regarding Afghanistan, NBC News reported Trump was so angry with the proposed plan that he suggested replacing Afghan war commander Gen. John Nicholson. That would be a sort of “shoot the messenger” approach, as Nicholson bluntly told Congress the war in Afghanistan is being lost and he needs more resources to turn it around.
Sources close to Trump told The Daily Beast that the president has privately complained in recent weeks that U.S. strategy and the war in Afghanistan—where American forces are “losing,” according to Trump—is embarrassing his young presidency and making him look “weak” and “not good” on the international stage and at home.
As The Daily Beast reported last month, several of Trump’s closest advisers have been vocally against, or skeptical of, current plans for the Afghan war. These officials include chief strategist Steve Bannon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, economic adviser Gary Cohn, and even Kushner.
Bannon, for his part, has tried to caution the president against further military involvement in Afghanistan by relaying to him the lessons of the failed Soviet occupation of the country to draw parallels to the U.S. predicament today. (The White House chief strategist is a military-history obsessive.)
“Six months ago, General Nicholson testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and warned that the United States was not winning the war in Afghanistan,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said in a statement Thursday, in defense of the general. “Our commanders-in-chief, not our commanders in the field, are responsible for this failure,” said McCain, who chairs the armed services committee. He added that if the White House hadn’t produced a new strategy by the fall, he’d introduce legislation to chart a way ahead.
Gorka Is Not a Goner
Two senior administration officials say the combative adviser to the president Sebastian Gorka is safe from the latest clean sweep, in part because the president likes him (especially when Gorka is on TV repping the White House and sparring with cable-news hosts); he reports to Bannon, not the NSC; and he’s popular with the Trump base.
“He’s one of the few people who can articulate Trump’s vision effectively,” one of the officials said. All of the officials spoke anonymously in order to describe staffing changes at the White House.
Still, the purge of other “Flynnstones” has riled Trump supporters who blame McMaster for leaks of sensitive White House information and for moderating key White House foreign policy decisions, such as its recertification of the Iran nuclear deal last month.
“Since McMaster took the job of National Security Advisor, he has systematically undermined the President’s policies,” wrote Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, a hardline foreign policy group supportive of the president. “America needs Rich Higgins in office, not H.R. McMaster.”
Mainstays of the pro-Trump media are all sure to register their disapproval of Higgins’ firing as well. Breitbart, the news outlet formerly run by Bannon, blared headlines across its homepage on Thursday accusing McMaster of being “deeply hostile” to Trump’s agenda.
Gateway Pundit, another prominent pro-Trump news site, dubbed McMaster a “globalist,” a common epithet among the pro-Trump “alt-right” movement—and even within the Trump administration. “Many eyebrows are being raised now as Nationalist advisors are being pushed out or put on the back burner while globalists trickle in,” wrote a Gateway Pundit blogger. “Was the ousting of General Flynn planned all along in order to stop Trump’s ‘America first’ agenda? Seems likely.”
Mike Cernovich, a controversial far-right blogger and self-help author, set up a website this week devoted to attacking McMaster and publishing leaked information about him. A cartoon leading the site shows McMaster and Gen. David Petraeus dancing on the ends of puppet strings held by billionaire hedge fund manager and right-wing bogeyman George Soros.