The Trump presidency traffics in reality TV tropes, with a lot of drama both on stage and off. As Trump huffs and puffs with compulsive Tweets and off-the-cuff speeches, he brings the same type of unpredictability backstage when it comes to dealing with his staff at the White House.
Michael Wolff’s recent bombshell book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” details the palace intrigue that rocked Trump’s first year in office. The president even threatened to sue to stop publication of the book, which is filled with explosive allegations that question his intelligence, temperament and even sanity.
While harsh, many of the allegations are not necessarily new. Wolff essentially portrays the president as a showman and a simpleton. He’s described as an unruly child who was “befuddled” and “horrified” by his own election victory, and has little interest in understanding the complexities of governing or legislation.
“It’s worse than you can imagine,” Wolff quotes one unnamed White House aide. “An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything — not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.”
Other allegations are more salacious. The book claims that Trump habitually tried to have sex with his friends’ wives and repeatedly demeaned women in his own administration.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has dismissed “Fire and Fury” as “trashy tabloid fiction,” and Wolff has been criticized for relying on anonymous sources and thinly substantiated material.
Whether true or not, Wolff’s book created a very real rift between Trump and his former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who is quoted as saying that a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton was “treasonous.” While Bannon later tried to walk back his comments, Trump declared that his one-time ally had not only lost his job, but also his mind.
The public feud with Bannon reinforces the impression of a White House besieged by dysfunction and squabbling. Last August, Homeland Security Secretary Gen. John Kelly was brought in as White House chief of staff to impose order on an administration with one of the highest turnover rates in recent memory (it was Kelly who helped nudge Bannon out).
Wolff’s tell-all now adds to Kelly’s woes as the chief of staff faces a potential exodus of aides in the new year, which could be compounded by the insults lobbed in the book. Among other things, Wolff claims that close members of Trump’s orbit routinely disparaged him, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and former chief of staff Reince Priebus (who allegedly called Trump “an idiot”) and economic advisor Gary Cohn (who supposedly referred to him as “dumb as shit”).
Trump is notoriously thin-skinned, but it remains to be seen how seriously he takes Wolff’s name-calling. Cohn is already rumored to be out the door, and speculation has been rife for months that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is leaving soon as well. But it could be another member of Trump’s team — who’s also been accused of personally insulting his boss — who might be next on the chopping block in a volatile White House that operates more like an episode of “The Apprentice” than “The West Wing.”
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, an active-duty army lieutenant general, has exerted a smoothing influence on Trump’s impulsive rhetoric in the public eye since taking office February 2017. But he’s also found himself in the crosshairs of a sustained alt-right campaign to push him out of office, as well as a clash of personalities with a president who relies more on his gut than on the experts around him.
“McMaster has tampered down Trump’s worst instincts,” Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information, told The Diplomat.
But McMaster didn’t do himself any favors by calling the president an “idiot” and a “dope” and equating Trump’s intelligence with that of a “kindergartner” during a dinner that took place July 2017 with Oracle CEO Safra Catz, as reported by BuzzFeed.
This kind of offloading seemed out of character for McMaster, who has played more of an elder statesman role for the White House. Fortunately for him, it seems Trump was willing to overlook what appeared to be a grave offense, as it was for Tillerson, who did not deny calling President Trump a “moron” after a Pentagon meeting in 2017. The revelation of this tiff led to Trump belittling his secretary of state, and rumor has it that Tillerson’s days are numbered at the State Department.
Trump, however, has not undermined McMaster in public to the level that he did Tillerson after the leak of McMaster’s insults. A spokesperson for the National Security Council and Oracle’s senior vice president for government affairs both denied that the insults were ever uttered by McMaster.
Wolff’s book rehashes some of this gossip and also claims that Trump’s first impression of McMaster was not a good one. “That guy bores the shit out of me,” Trump allegedly said, according to Wolff, who paints a picture of a president with little patience for policy details. In describing a meeting McMaster had with Trump about how to respond to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons last April, Wolff writes that “it seemed obvious that the president was more annoyed about having to think about the attack than by the attack itself.”
Despite constant speculation that Trump personally dislikes his national security advisor, McMaster is still standing at the White House and it’s clear that Trump respects him enough to let him stay on and help put together the new National Security Strategy.
Michael Flynn, whom McMaster replaced, was supported by the alt-right. Flynn resigned after reports surfaced that he misled Trump administration officials about potentially illegal conversations he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. In late 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those talks and disclosed that he is fully cooperating with the special counsel investigating Russian interference with the 2016 election.
McMaster took on alt-right enemies when he became national security advisor, but he has outlasted his strongest opponents: Steve Bannon and former White House aide Sebastian Gorka, both of whom were fired in August. Bannon also stepped down as executive chairman of Breitbart News last month in the wake of the fallout over Wolff’s book.
McMaster drew the ire of far-right media outlets such as Breitbart and Infowars for his establishment, globalist views and for purging Flynn loyalists at the National Security Council. On issues ranging from Iran to Afghanistan, alt-right nationalists say McMaster represents the status quo that Trump voters specifically voted against.
Frank Gaffney, president and CEO of the Center for Security Policy, has been one of McMaster’s most vocal opponents. Gaffney, who has been criticized for his anti-Muslim conspiracy theories — among them, that the Muslim Brotherhood is stealthily introducing Sharia law in the U.S. — argues that McMaster is trying to sabotage Trump’s agenda, including efforts to defeat radical Islamic terrorism. (McMaster persuaded Trump to avoid the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” during a speech in Saudi Arabia last year.)
“At every turn, the Army general has been insubordinate to his commander-in-chief. For example, he has openly opposed Mr. Trump on ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ Syria, Qatar, Iran, Russia and the Muslim Brotherhood,” Gaffney said in a nationally syndicated radio commentary last August. “Of late, McMaster has taken to purging Mr. Trump’s most loyal staff members, including senior intelligence advisor Ezra Cohen-Watnik [sic] — a man the president had previously, personally insisted be retained.”
McMaster did indeed fire some of Flynn’s appointees, many of whom held hawkish views on terrorism, Islam and the perils of globalization. That included Cohen-Watnick, a 31-year-old political neophyte; Derek Harvey, an Iran hard-liner; K.T. McFarland, a former Fox News contributor who is currently under scrutiny in the Russia probe; and Rich Higgins, who wrote a conspiratorial memo about an alleged deep state of globalists, bankers, Islamists and establishment Republicans working against the Trump White House.
The campaign to oust McMaster reached a fevered pitch last summer, with far-right media pushing the hashtag #FireMcMaster on Twitter, which Business Insider reported was spread by Russian bots and trolls. The website www.mcmasterleaks.com, which features only one post, dated Aug. 2, 2017, contains a list of “H.R. McMaster Facts” that portray him as undermining the Trump administration. Included in this list are the following items: “McMaster refuses to get rid of Obama holdovers who spied in [sic] Trump”; “McMaster has called Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy goals naïve”; and “McMaster publicly corrects and contradicts Trump.”
Breitbart also claimed that McMaster was hostile to Israel, while Infowars went so far as to suggest that the national security advisor had a drinking problem.
The smear campaign largely fizzled out and some of the rumors may have even backfired on Bannon and his supporters for going too far.
While the personal attacks have died down, deep ideological differences remain between the traditional GOP views espoused by McMaster and Trump’s far-right base, which generally favors cooperation with Russia and adamantly opposes the Iran nuclear deal and overseas entanglements in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The troop surge in Afghanistan was, in fact, the biggest sticking point between McMaster and Bannon, who advocated using private contractors instead of American soldiers to fight the war. (Wolff’s book claims that Bannon planned to get rid of McMaster by dispatching him to lead the war effort in Afghanistan.)
Trump was initially against increasing troop levels in Afghanistan. He was not interested in continuing America’s longest war, but Defense Secretary James Mattis, McMaster and Kelly convinced him otherwise, warning Trump of the dangers of pulling out of Afghanistan. The generals successfully conveyed to Trump that exiting Afghanistan would endanger American lives and American interests in the region and would leave a vacuum that the Islamic State and al-Qaeda would fill. On a cultural note, McMaster was able to persuade Trump that Afghanistan had some history of commonality with the West by showing him a picture of Afghan women wearing miniskirts in Kabul in 1972.
In August, Trump announced his vision for Afghanistan, which included an emphasis on putting pressure on Pakistan to stop acting as a safe haven for terrorists. Trump gave no timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and said that conditions on the ground would inform troop levels, which he delegated to the Pentagon to set.
The 16-year U.S. war in Afghanistan has seen troop levels increase from a peak of 100,000 in 2011 to about 8,500 when Trump took office. Under Trump, the Pentagon now has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, with another 1,000 possibly to come in the spring.
Realpolitik Security Strategy
Trump likes to hammer his slogan “America First,” and the National Security Strategy (NSS) he released in December 2017 is no exception to what has turned into the president’s philosophy of governance.
“An America First National Security Strategy is based on American principles, a clear-eyed assessment of U.S. interests, and a determination to tackle the challenges that we face,” according to the NSS. “It is a strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology.”
Trump’s National Security Strategy, which was put together by McMaster’s team, espouses a realpolitik worldview that puts U.S. national interests first and sees the world as a competitive stage. “The United States will respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world,” the NSS states.
It calls out “revisionist powers” China and Russia and “rogue regimes” North Korea and Iran as antithetical actors vis-à-vis the U.S. “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence. At the same time, the dictatorships of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran are determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people.”
The new NSS has echoes of the Cold War, which isn’t surprising given that McMaster has declared that “geopolitics is back” after “this holiday from history we took in the so-called post-Cold War period.” The document veers away from ideology and eschews cooperation in favor of great power competition. “These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades — policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.”
The previous National Security Strategies were “a little more idealistic,” according to Peter Haynes, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “This administration, particularly McMaster, they’re bringing a little more of a relational view,” Haynes told The Diplomat. The administration is “not just trying to solve the Russia or China problem. The North Korea problem can’t be separated from China. The perspective of McMaster and the team [is] much more of a Kissinger kind of viewpoint than Wilsonian.” In other words, the administration is focused on U.S. power and how to leverage it.
How much of the National Security Strategy is Trump and how much is McMaster is anyone’s guess. It’s possible the core of the NSS is McMaster with a bit of Trump’s rhetoric here and there to put the president’s stamp on it. In his remarks announcing the NSS, for example, Trump boasted again of building a wall with Mexico and failed to mention Russian meddling in the U.S. election, even though Russia is described as a threat to democracy in the NSS.
“Just look at the contrast between the National Security Strategy’s text and the language of the president’s speech accompanying its release: While the strategy has its flaws, it at least reads in tone like fairly traditional conservative national security policy; whereas the speech was much more of an alt-right rhetorical indulgence,” Joshua Geltzer, a fellow at New America and former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council staff, told The Diplomat in an email.
In general, many experts say McMaster has done a decent job in his first year as national security advisor. While his boss has warmongering tendencies, he has tried to dial back Trump’s outlandish statements. For instance, Trump has been threatening war with North Korea, fueled by personal animus against “rocket man” Kim Jong-un, but McMaster is trying to toe the line between acknowledging his boss’s itchy trigger finger and starting something the country, and the world, cannot back down from. So, while McMaster has said that the potential for war with North Korea is “increasing every day,” he also said that armed conflict is not the only solution.
“Given the circumstances of his job, I think he’s doing very well,” said Korb.
“To an important degree, Trump’s apparent lack of interest in most policy details has allowed professionals like H.R. to shape what the government actually does in ways that limit the damage relative to what one might expect from the commander-in-chief’s Twitter account,” Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University and an adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Diplomat in an email.
When asked to give the national security adviser a grade for his first year in office, Haynes said, “I would probably give McMaster a B-plus. He’s in a very tough role.”
About the Author
Aileen Torres-Bennett is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.