In a moment that may feel unfamiliar to the nascent Trump administration, the president’s choice to fill the shoes of departed National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is drawing almost uniform praise from people on both sides of the partisan divide.
Some of President Trump’s appointees have provoked feelings of dread, like putting fossil fuel crusader Scott Pruitt at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency. Others have caused puzzlement, like putting celebrated neurosurgeon Ben Carson in charge at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The announcement on Sunday that Trump had chosen Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster to be his closest adviser (officially, at least) on matters of national security -- and the news that, unlike a previous well-qualified candidate, he had accepted -- generated something close to a sigh of relief in the national security community.
The 54-year-old Philadelphia native has served in the Army for more than 30 years, and has a long history of brilliance both on the battlefield and in academia. He distinguished himself in both the first and second Iraq wars. In 1991, as a captain leading a tank unit in the Battle of 73 Easting, he oversaw a decisive victory over a numerically superior Iraqi force. In 2004, as a colonel, he oversaw the pacification of the city of Tal Afar, which became a case study in fighting insurgencies.
Between those deployments, McMaster earned a Ph.D. in military history from the University of North Carolina. His dissertation on the failure of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to stand up to the Lyndon Johnson administration during an escalation of the Vietnam War that he saw as hopeless turned into the bestselling book Dereliction of Duty.
Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been free with his criticism of the Trump administration in recent weeks, but he had nothing but praise for this move. “I give President Trump great credit for this decision,” he said after the announcement on Sunday.
Sen. Tom Cotton, the hawkish lawmaker from Arkansas, served in the Army with McMaster, and reportedly pressed the Trump administration to hire him. He described the general as ““one of the finest combat leaders of our generation and also a great strategic mind. He is a true warrior scholar.”
On Twitter, Susan Rice, who served as President Obama’s National Security Adviser, wrote, “Congrats to Lt Gen McMaster. I wish you every success as National Security Advisor. Hope you will be able to choose your team, have direct reporting and daily access to POTUS, and can eliminate Strategic Initiatives Group. Please trust, empower, support the extraordinary professional, largely career NSC staff. They won't let you down.”
Rice was referring to two things that have caused concern among national security professionals. The Strategic Initiatives Group is an assemblage of administration employees centered on White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. It is largely seen as a shadow National Security Council that might challenge the authority of the real NSC, which McMaster will chair.
“I have a lot of respect for HR,” Michael McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia under President Obama, wrote on Twitter. “HR will not roll over and salute Bannon.”
Rice had also been referring to the tension over NSC staffing that has characterized the search for Flynn’s replacement. One candidate, retired Admiral Robert Harward, reportedly turned down the job in part because he was told that he would not have full control over who served on his staff.
On Sunday, prior to the announcement that McMaster had been selected, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said that the administration’s position was now that the new national security adviser would have full authority to staff the NSC in the way he or she saw fit.
McMaster’s appointment will go a long way toward calming national security professionals who were genuinely distressed at the prospect of Flynn running the NSC. A retired general, Flynn has shadowy connections to the leadership of Russia, and was given to tweeting out conspiracy theories during the presidential campaign.