War Stories

Where H.R. McMaster Went Wrong

He built a storied military career by speaking truth to power—until that power was President Trump.

National security adviser H.R. McMaster speaks about the situation in Syria during a discussion at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Thursday in Washington.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster speaks about the situation in Syria during a discussion at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Thursday in Washington. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Let us now consider the sorry tale of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. Sources vary on when his last rites will be read—maybe today, maybe not for weeks or even months—but it seems clear that the sand is trickling down on his brief time as national security adviser.

When President Trump gave him the job in February 2017, it was seen as a bold but risky move for both men. McMaster, a combat hero in both Iraq wars, had made his reputation 20 years earlier, as an Army major, with his dissertation-turned-book, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, which criticized the top generals of the 1960s for betraying their constitutional duties by failing to give the president their honest military advice.

In his assignments since then, McMaster only solidified his standing as an officer who spoke truth to power, sometimes impetuously, with a distinct lack of talent for dissembling. Some of his superiors admired him for his impolitic indifference; most despised him for it.

He came to the White House with no background in broad national security policy and no experience in Washington politics—and those shortcomings helped seal his doom. When the president called on him to tell the sorts of lies for which he’d lambasted an earlier generation of generals, he didn’t know how to evade the pressure, and he succumbed to it just as they did.

The turning point came in May, barely three months into the job. The Washington Post reported that at a meeting in the Oval Office, Trump had divulged to Russia’s two top diplomats highly classified secrets about Israel’s involvement in an intelligence operation. In the wake of this appalling security breach, which would have sent anyone else to prison, McMaster was ordered to cover Trump’s tracks at a press conference.

Reading from a carefully worded script, McMaster strung together a series of mendacities and half-truths that appalled his friends and admirers. One of them pronounced himself “heartbroken.” Eliot Cohen wrote in the Atlantic, in a pointed reference to McMaster, that, for the high officials dragged into Trump’s swamp of deceit, the worst moment may come when they “can no longer recognize their own characters for what they once were.”

In subsequent months, McMaster made a few attempts at redemption. He publicly affirmed America’s commitment to the defense of NATO, when Trump declined to do so. He described Russia as a strategic threat, when Trump was refusing to utter a critical word about the Kremlin. Most recently, after Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians for interfering with the 2016 election, McMaster declared that the evidence of the Kremlin’s involvement was “incontrovertible,” when Trump was still in denial.

Yet on other occasions, McMaster was still trotted out to praise Trump’s insights and endorse his policies, and in the end, he was caught in a trap of his own making—condemned as a conformist by his erstwhile celebrators and judged as an overly critical nuisance by his boss.

The Washington Post reported Thursday night that Trump “has complained that McMaster is too rigid and that his briefings go on for too long and seem irrelevant.” McMaster has also alienated Secretary of Defense James Mattis by pressuring the Pentagon—at Trump’s behest—to devise more options for military attacks against North Korea. And he angered White House chief of staff John Kelly for plotting against Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—possibly to gain favor with Trump, who had long grown weary of his top diplomat.

McMaster might have done better had he resigned his military commission upon taking the White House job, as Brent Scowcroft did when President George H.W. Bush named him to the same position. Scowcroft, who had been an Air Force three-star general, said at the time that staying in the military—with its obligation to obey all legal orders from the commander in chief—would have impeded his ability to offer independent advice, especially if it meant vocally disagreeing with Bush. McMaster, clearly, found himself confronting that very problem with no comfortable way out.

Hanging up his uniform might also have strengthened his leverage with Mattis. McMaster once complained to colleagues that Mattis, a retired four-star general, “treats me like a three-star”—in other words, like a subordinate instead of an equal. In military culture, there is an enormous gulf between a four-star and a three-star general, and it would have been hard for either officer to deal with each other without some awareness of—and sensitivity to—the hierarchy. The fact that Mattis was a Marine and McMaster an Army soldier may have added a tribal frisson to the tension.

The next problem for McMaster, who’s only 55, is where to go next. Trump has reportedly asked the Army to find a way to give McMaster a fourth star, to ease the letdown and to show that not every fired White House official leaves in disgrace or disgruntlement. It may be that Trump also wants to keep McMaster from writing a tell-all, which might restore his reputation in some circles, but which he can’t do as long as he remains in the military.

The fact is, before Trump brought him to the White House, McMaster was informed by the top brass, according to Army colleagues of his, that he wasn’t going to be a four-star general; his career in the Army was thus on the verge of being over. This couldn’t have come as a surprise.. Back when he was a maverick junior officer, McMaster knew the odds were slim that he’d ever get even one star, much less three or four. He obtained the first of his stars only because, in 2007, John Nagl, a lieutenant colonel and friend of McMaster’s, persuaded Secretary of the Army Pete Geren that the top brass were promoting the wrong kinds of officers. And so Geren called Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, to chair that year’s Army promotion board for the explicit purpose of ensuring that McMaster and several other creative but career-blocked colonels would become generals. (Some even called that year’s panel “the H.R. McMaster Promotion Board.”)

But the problem now, according to a few Army officers I’ve consulted, is that there are no vacancies in four-star slots for which McMaster would be suited. No combatant commands are open, and it’s doubtful the Army would award such a vaunted post to someone who hasn’t led troops since he was a colonel. The top brass would also be loath to give McMaster a policy job in the Pentagon right after the president has fired him from the top policy job in the White House. He would make an excellent leader of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command—he served as its deputy commander not long ago —but that post was just filled in the past few weeks.

One retired general told me McMaster should be made superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It’s an intriguing idea. McMaster graduated from West Point and later taught at West Point’s history department. He earned a Ph.D. as well as many combat awards; he has intellectual, even egghead, leanings. It’s a post for three-star generals, so he wouldn’t be promoted, but it would be a soft, maybe even satisfying, landing. It may be up to McMaster to decide if that’s what he’s looking for.