While preparing to write this post, I debated a bit about the right way to organize it. The post is about some troubling developments over the last week or so, suggesting that two of the top general officers in the Trump administration are letting an attitude of institutional resistance against the president be visible to the public.
I don’t doubt that professional life is very hard right now for these gentlemen. I do doubt that seeming to buck the president – or in fact bucking the president – is the right thing to do.
But I don’t want to make this “about” calling them out as individuals. For one thing, we have a tough time knowing how much of what we hear about the doings inside the Beltway is true. I’m restricting myself here to commenting on events there is verifiable evidence for.
For another thing, the pressure-cooker of a Washington in which every local institution is trying to bring down the elected president is enough to put cracks in most people. The problem is much bigger than personalities.
The focus on national security
It’s not a surprise that foreign and security policy is the realm in which this is manifesting itself most sharply. When Michael Flynn was railroaded out of his position as national security adviser, Trump lost the senior policy coordinator whom he – Trump – could trust to coordinate policy on his terms, and in the service of his agenda.
The people who cycle through positions inside the Beltway are accustomed to particular conventions of White House business. And one that expanded and entrenched itself considerably during the Obama years was the policy centrality of the national security adviser and the NSC. Obama significantly increased both the manning and the power portfolio of the NSC.
This wasn’t necessarily a problem; there are pros and cons to how he operated. Bush 43 also had an especially high-profile adviser in Condoleezza Rice. The foreign policy horsepower of Henry Kissinger when he was national security adviser in the Nixon administration was legendary. Presidents have differed somewhat in how they have used these relationships.
But there are two important points about the situation Trump inherited from Obama. One is that the NSC staff was so expanded, and the national security establishment became accustomed to the way Obama used it – in part as a place to bring in people like Ben Rhodes and Robert Malley, to name just two, who wouldn’t have survived the vetting process to get jobs of comparable responsibility in the cabinet departments.
The other point is that the functioning of the national security apparatus, under these conditions, depended heavily on the national security adviser and the NSC having the trust of the president, and supporting and executing his policies loyally.
The Obama NSC staff was closely involved – very hands-on – in issues ranging from air strike targeting in Syria and Iraq to negotiating the JCPOA with Iran. The NSC enjoyed this level of involvement in the business of the Defense and State Departments because it had the trust of the president and his most senior aides, like Valerie Jarrett.
The structural stress now is precisely the disconnect between a president, elected by the people, who wants to implement his policies, and senior national security officials who accepted their jobs and remain in them even though, on key issues, they apparently disagree with the president’s policies.
The two men I referred to at the outset are H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, and (to a lesser extent) James Mattis, the secretary of defense.
I don’t perceive Mattis’ policy discord with the president to be as acute as McMaster’s, and that is an important point. But I found it jarring last week when Mattis’ Pentagon responded to Trump’s tweets about the transgender ban with a less-than-compliant (even snippy) sounding memo that said, basically, “We’re not doing anything until the president comes up with a plan.”
It’s not the president’s job to come up with the plan. And with all due respect to Secretary Mattis, that’s not a disciplined military response.
Moreover, I can’t imagine Mattis ever responding that way to any order from Obama, no matter what the issue, no matter how the order was given, and no matter what Mattis’ own feelings about it. The Pentagon’s public response came off as a political smoke signal: a statement of implied dissatisfaction and passive-aggressive resistance to the president. That’s not OK. You pull that one, you better just go ahead and use it. You can’t make a lifestyle of it with rhetorical drive-bys. When you try to, you make yourself the problem. That doesn’t sound Mattis-like to me.
Although the Pentagon response on the transgender tweets is noteworthy in its own right, its impact was increased for me because of a move by McMaster that seemed to have very pointed timing. On Thursday, McMaster removed Trump hire Derek Harvey from the National Security Council: a move made at a freighted time, and in the wake of some high-priority policy disagreements between McMaster and Trump. (Interestingly, the removal was said to be at the specific request of Mattis.)
The disagreements themselves are important, as illustrations of the structural stress the national security apparatus is under. One is over the direction our strategy in Afghanistan needs to go. There was a flurry of articles on this topic a week ago, reporting that McMaster is at odds with Defense, State, and Steve Bannon on the nature of the strategy, and was having no success selling them or the president on his plan to put in more troops.
What every pundit I’ve seen appears to have missed is the burning question: why in the world does McMaster, the national security adviser, have a plan to put more troops in Afghanistan?
This looks like an Obama-style manifestation from the NSC: coming up with actual plans that properly belong in the DOD portfolio. As far as we know, the Pentagon hasn’t floated a formal plan yet – and indeed is said to be slow-rolling the task to come up with one.
I do take that last claim with a grain of salt; the mainstream media are dedicated to depicting the entire Trump administration in as dysfunctional a light as possible. A good 90% of the time, even when events have been reported correctly, it takes little research to reveal that the nefarious construction put on them is deceitful, and wholly unwarranted.
But there is a structural problem when the Defense Department doesn’t have a strategy update for Afghanistan, the national security adviser does, and neither agency is satisfying the president.
It took the Obama administration from July 2009 to March 2010 to evaluate an extremely detailed strategic plan for Afghanistan forwarded by General Stanley McChrystal. So let’s keep things in perspective here. The issue is not that it’s taking time to decide what to do in Afghanistan.
The issue is that the president is not being forwarded proposals that he can do anything with. He’s not being forwarded proposals that meet his policy criteria.
That maps back directly to the loss of Michael Flynn, and it is clear to me that that’s exactly why Flynn was attacked so hard, with innuendo based on intelligence leaks that could only have come from people with inside-government access.
The Iran hobby horse of the “deep state”
The other policy issue on which McMaster has recently had an important disagreement with Trump is, of course, the JCPOA with Iran. McMaster is certainly not the only one; Rex Tillerson and the State Department, along with Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford, were also ranged with him on the opposite side from Trump.
Trump has reportedly been trying to get them to send him a plan to hold Iran accountable for breaching the JCPOA, and thereby form a basis for renegotiating a better deal. So far, his national security agencies have been unresponsive on this. Adam Kredo and other reporters previewed this very pattern back in February, when they linked the hounding of Michael Flynn to a “deep state” effort to save the JCPOA from him. The main purpose of getting rid of Flynn was to stymie Trump in his Iran policy.
Shortly after the mid-July dust-up over the scheduled JCPOA certification, Trump reportedly set up a working group – outside the formal lanes of the NSC and State Department – to come up with the plan he couldn’t get his appointed officials to craft.
And now we circle back to Derek Harvey – who came to the NSC with Flynn as a Trump hire, and is considered an “Iran hawk.” According to NBC’s report on his removal from the NSC, Harvey was appointed to Trump’s new working group on Iran policy and the JCPOA.
McMaster removing him is informative in a couple of ways. One, it looks like a move of disgruntlement. That’s never a healthy dynamic from a subordinate. General McMaster has a superb reputation, and deservedly so; all we can say from the cheap seats is what it looks like – no matter who you are – to fire the guy your boss has just put on his special, high-priority working group. And it doesn’t look good.
The other point is that a national security adviser who wanted to be aligned with the president’s policies would have reason to welcome the participation of one of his officials in a special presidential working group. It might be annoying to not be consulted on the guy’s appointment. But the value of having him on your staff is not to be overlooked, as a source of information and a means of making input.
Instead of keeping open a potentially valuable channel to the new working group, McMaster apparently shut it down.
The reporting on this has unfailingly mentioned that McMaster has either removed, or sought to remove, other Trump hires who came in with Michael Flynn. Harvey has been out there for a while as a subject of speculation: someone McMaster would like to send elsewhere. But his removal came this past week, after Harvey was put on Trump’s Iran working group, and at a time when the perception of discord between Trump and his top national security officials was reaching a crescendo.
Interestingly, long-time civilians Jeff Sessions and Rex Tillerson have seemed to maintain better fire discipline under assault than McMaster and even Mattis have. Sessions and Tillerson haven’t made a name for themselves as interesting specimens of resistance to Trump, in a town where the media are determined to create and feature such specimens. (The autopilot machinations of the career State Department are another story, of course.)
All of these top officials have come in for their share of grief from various quarters, much of it unfair. I’ve never in my life seen such a concerted attack on a presidential administration; I don’t think any of us has. The focus of fire so far has been on the national security apparatus. And the men from a military tradition seem, from here, to be the ones who have twitched.
That may be, in large part, because they are at the very center of the tremendous structural stress dynamic. McMaster, in his pivotal position, would be under the greatest stress of all. His role in the current drama is to be the nexus of dysfunction.
If Michael Flynn had been able to weather the storm in February, and remain as national security adviser, I assume there would still have been a lot of hysterical pushback against Trump’s policies from the echo chambers of Washington. But the appearance of what’s going on would be different. “The Trump administration” and its national security policy would look more coherent and effective today. Instead of being depicted as a chaotic mess, it would be depicted more routinely as culpably — sinisterly — “wrong” about everything.
In other words, we’d be debating the policies — to some extent, at least, if often stupidly – rather than forgetting that they’re even there.
Instead, Trump has been made to look ineffective by being denied a national security adviser and an NSC that actually work for him. McMaster and Trump are both ineffective on some key issues because McMaster isn’t on-board with the president’s policy views and priorities. McMaster was acceptable to the Washington establishment for that very reason. For the deep state, ineffectiveness for Trump’s national security policies isn’t a bug; it’s a feature.