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Infighting at the National Security Council

McMaster-White-House-seal

A report at Foreign Policy describes the struggle by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster to wrestle control of the National Security Council from loyalists of his predecessor, Michael Flynn. It’s apparently an uphill fight.

The memo at the heart of the latest blowup at the National Security Council paints a dark picture of media, academics, the “deep state,” and other enemies allegedly working to subvert U.S. President Donald Trump, according to a copy of the document obtained by Foreign Policy.

The seven-page document, which eventually landed on the president’s desk, precipitated a crisis that led to the departure of several high-level NSC officials tied to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. The author of the memo, Rich Higgins, who was in the strategic planning office at the NSC, was among those recently pushed out.

The full memo, dated May 2017, is titled “POTUS & Political Warfare.” It provides a sweeping, if at times conspiratorial, view of what it describes as a multi-pronged attack on the Trump White House.

Trump is being attacked, the memo says, because he represents “an existential threat to cultural Marxist memes that dominate the prevailing cultural narrative.” Those threatened by Trump include “‘deep state’ actors, globalists, bankers, Islamists, and establishment Republicans.”

The memo is part of a broader political struggle inside the White House between current National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and alt-right operatives with a nationalist worldview who believe the Army general and his crew are subverting the president’s agenda.

Though not called out by name, McMaster was among those described in the document as working against Trump, according to a source with firsthand knowledge of the memo and the events. Higgins, the author, is widely regarded as a Flynn loyalist who dislikes McMaster and his team.

While crazy by normal NSC standards, we’ve seen a lot of reports of this type since the Trump administration began. The memo is available in its entirety at the link. It’s a mix of paranoid conspiracy nonsense and astute analysis of the situation. While the “deep state” label is highly problematic, there’s simply no question that the vast bulk of career national security professionals are skeptical of the new administration’s policy goals. That Trump loyalists would be frustrated by this—and by McMaster’s attempts to circumvent said policy goals in the direction of more normal ones–is hardly shocking.

More problematic is the sheer lack of process and deep mistrust starting at the very top:

The story of the memo’s strange journey to the Oval Office captures the zeitgeist of what has become the tragicomedy of the current White House: a son trying to please his father, an isolated general on a mission to find a leaker, a right-wing blogger with a window into the nation’s security apparatus, and a president whose closest confidante is a TV personality.

The result is an even wider rift between the president and his national security advisor, marking what may be the beginning of the end of the general’s tenure, and a radical shift of power on the NSC.

That part is a long story but the key bit is this:

Trump Jr., at that time in the glare of media scrutiny around his meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign, gave the memo to his father, who gushed over it, according to sources.

In a comedy of errors, Trump later learned from Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and close friend of the president, that the memo’s author had been fired. Trump was “furious,” the senior administration official said. “He is still furious.”

More importantly than the specific controversy is this:

McMaster “doesn’t really have any allies,” said a source familiar with the NSC staff. “It doesn’t seem as though he has the ear of the president, which is obviously essential to his survival.”

There has, since the earliest days of the transition, been hope among national security analysts that the handful of “adults” in top spots in the administration—most notably Generals Jim Mattis and John Kelly—would ultimately outmaneuver the loyalists and amateurs. That wishfulness peaked when McMaster was brought in to replace Flynn. The problem with that theory has always been that this president, even moreso than his two predecessors, values loyalty and personal ties above virtually all else. Mattis and Kelly seem to be having significant influence, at least at the margins. Kelly, recently elevated to White House chief of staff, seems in particular to have the president’s ear. By all indications, McMaster is outside the circle of trust.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Mark Ivey says:

    Remember when McMaster came out and told the press that Trump said nothing more than small talk to Russians in the Oval office?

    Those were the days..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  2. CSK says:

    JJ, in your final paragraph, do you mean “John Kelly” rather than “Michael Kelly”?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. MarkedMan says:

    The metastasis of this presidency will progress. The efforts of Kelly et al are the equivalent of a few early bumps in platelet count during an inevitably fatal cancer. Sure, currently there are a few people of character that are trying to hold it together. These beneficial antibodies will be eliminated one by one. The wholesale destruction of every facet of American governance is in progress. And the idea that Republican’s will somehow act as a check? The Republican Party has been descending into this madness since 1964’s Southern Strategy. Trump is a typical modern Republican except he has no self control. He simply speaks out the loud the incoherent ramblings that make up today’s Republican philosophy. For god’s sake, the speaker of the house used to require staff members to read Ayn Rand, which is the legislative equivalent of the head of the FBI requiring agents to watch “Scooby Doo”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  4. James Joyner says:

    @CSK: Yes, thanks. Not sure if I was conflating him with Michael Flynn or what.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. SenyorDave says:

    @MarkedMan: Trump is a typical modern Republican except he has no self control.

    Also, unfortunately he’s the POTUS and the most powerful person on the planet. The idea that he could launch a nuclear strike on a whim is actually pretty terrifying when you really think about it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  6. CSK says:

    This is a tough one for the Trumpkins: They want to hate McMaster because McMaster and Bannon are feuding, but Trump himself has expressed his confidence in McMaster. A real conundrum.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. Kylopod says:

    @James Joyner: Michael Kelly is also the name of a famous journalist who was killed in Iraq in the 2000s. Maybe that’s where the confusion came from?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Those threatened by Trump include “‘deep state’ actors, globalists, bankers, Islamists, and establishment Republicans.”

    And everyone with at least half a working brain.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  9. MarkedMan says:

    @SenyorDave: oh, I agree. But my point is that Trump’s incoherence and incompetence does not exist ina vacuum. The entire Republican infrastructure made it not only possible but inevitable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Kylopod: Perhaps. Who knows what’s going on with my brain these days….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. Joe says:

    I have concluded that “Deep State” is simply the alt-right’s pejorative term for those who believe that the Constitution and Constitutional government is their job rather than doing whatever Trump and his base want done just cause they want it done.

    Those who have been doing federal government for a long time and who have been taught how to do federal government by their predecessor’s have developed processes and methods for conducting Constitutional Democracy. For better or worse, that’s what got us where we are.

    I understand that Trumpkins don’t like where we are and they voted accordingly. What they hate is the fact that in a Constitutional Democracy you still can’t do whatever you want just cause you won the most recent election.

    They call this undermining Trump. I call it maintaining the Constitutional framework of government. If that’s Deep State, I say go, Deep State!

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  12. gVOR08 says:

    @Joe:

    Those who have been doing federal government for a long time and who have been taught how to do federal government by their predecessor’s have developed processes and methods for conducting Constitutional Democracy.

    Bannon is right that we are fighting a clash of cultures. But it’s them against liberal democracy. They want to overturn the enlightenment. Bannon is the public face of the Mercers. With Koch, Mercer, et al money behind them, they have a shot at it. We need to re-institute a 90% top marginal rate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  13. DrDaveT says:

    It provides a sweeping, if at times conspiratorial, view of what it describes as a multi-pronged attack on the Trump White House.

    Don’t think of it as an attack on the Trump White House. Think of it as a defense of America.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  14. gVOR08 says:

    I tried to read the whole Higgins memo, but it made my head hurt. The man is a looney tune. But his lunacy seems fairly common on the right. He was apparently close to Flynn. How nuts is Flynn? How many more of these people are there in the administration?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @gVOR08:

    We need to re-institute a 90% top marginal rate.

    Wouldn’t guillotines be easier?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  16. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    Trump may have gushed over it, but I seriously doubt he read it. It has paragraphs and complete sentences (though that doesn’t mean they make much sense).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  17. gVOR08 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Overkill. I’d be content to get back to what Eisenhower described.

    Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

    Our problem is that now their number is legion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  18. Joe says:

    @Just Another Ex-Republican:

    I read that memo. I have not read hardcore political theory for 35 years and that looked like somebody’s way over-baked thesis. Ironically discussing the problems of Academia. If Trump read anything but the last line (that he could either be driven by events or drive them – ant it’s time for him to drive), I will eat my hat. I have trouble thinking Trump, Jr. could actually have understood whether the memo was a good or bad thing for his father.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. Mr. Prosser says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: It hurts more if they are taxed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  20. Gustopher says:

    It’s a mix of paranoid conspiracy nonsense and astute analysis of the situation. While the “deep state” label is highly problematic, there’s simply no question that the vast bulk of career national security professionals are skeptical of the new administration’s policy goals

    Trump promised to run government like a business, and any business leader of worth has faced similar problems when changing priorities. You can’t fire everyone and rehire a new team — you would never get anything done because that would take so long, so you have to inspire and convince.

    Why can’t business leader extraordinaire Trump do that?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. Gustopher says:

    And, from the quoted article:

    Trump is being attacked, the memo says, because he represents “an existential threat to cultural Marxist memes that dominate the prevailing cultural narrative.” Those threatened by Trump include “‘deep state’ actors, globalists, bankers, Islamists, and establishment Republicans.”

    Am I the only one who reads “globalist, bankers” and thinks Jews? It doesn’t quite fit into the thought, but it’s such a common dog whistle that I can’t believe it literally means globalists and bankers.

    Also, wtf is up with Marxists? I’ve been seeing that pop up a lot lately in all sorts of different contexts, way more than usual. Which right wing lunatic is everyone parroting now?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  22. gVOR08 says:

    @Gustopher:
    Yes, the dog whistle in “globalists and bankers” does seem obvious.

    Also, wtf is up with Marxists? I’ve been seeing that pop up a lot lately in all sorts of different contexts, way more than usual.

    I stay out of the RWNJ swamp, but yes, I think I’ve seen “Marxist” more in the last month than last year. My impression is that it’s used as a catchall for anything “collectivist”, meaning anything not countenanced by Randian objectivism.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  23. de stijl says:

    @gVOR08:

    Beyond globalists and bankers, remember Stephen Miller’s “cosmopolitan” comments in the Acosta exchange.

    All of the Breitbart folks (Bannon, Gorka, and Miller) in this administration look like a duck and walk like a duck, and that duck is an alt-right anti-semite who dog-whistles so often they are banned from approaching within 1000 yards of a dog park.

    Think of Miller’s demeanor during that to-and-fro. He’d been saving up that “cosmopolitan bias” come-back for years. And he got deliver it on camera. That dead-eyed smug prick has been wanting to hoist his freak flag forever, and he got to do it on TV behind the White House podium.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. de stijl says:

    Remember the days when we were freaked that a zombie-eyed, granny starving, Randian Objectivist was elected Speaker of the House?

    Now, he is the sane steadying hand on the tiller.

    Ah, the folly of youth.

    We’ve normalized so much Republican dysfunctional behavior. We expect them to be agents of chaos and disorder. It’s noteworthy when they’re not.

    “An existential threat to Marxist cultural memes that dominate the prevailing cultural narrative”

    Crikey friggin Moses, we have an overwrought emo teen on the NSC writing heartfelt and misguided jeremiads. I can’t wait to read his slash fanfic about the sparkly haughty vampire and the moody and misunderstood Amerind wolverine.

    We are devolving into rank idiots. I don’t want my supersensitive barista to be appointed to an NSC staff job. Is that too much to ask?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. de stijl says:

    Do you know what would be appreciated in an NSC staffer? Basic job competence.

    Not fantasy warfare against evil SJWs armed with jute pikes and hemp short swords who want to abduct the pure princess.

    How about an honest assessment of the actual threats to our country and realistic plans to counteract those threats? Not goals. Plans.

    A goal is not a plan. “Failure is not an option” is a fool’s maxim. Failure will always happen. Prepare for it. Plan for it.

    What are the major threats? What are the minor ones? How should we respond? How should we prepare? Do we have the equipment? Can we deliver that gear in time? Do we have the logistical wherewithal? Do we have the diplomatic staff? How will we cope with the aftermath? What facilties will we need? Which people in what roles?

    We bungled Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s learn something from that. We spent several trillion dollars and more than a hundred thousand dead people to learn these lessons.

    James Joyner:

    It’s a mix of paranoid conspiracy nonsense and an astute analysis of the situation.

    It is not astute. It is the opposite of astute. It is juvenile apocalyptia and ressentiment. Puerile fantasy is not astute.

    Is that a memo from a competent professional in his role at his paygrade?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  26. teve tory says:

    @de stijl:

    A goal is not a plan. “Failure is not an option” is a fool’s maxim. Failure will always happen. Prepare for it. Plan for it.

    yep. When I read Elizabeth Holmes saying, “I think that the minute that you have a backup plan, you’ve admitted that you’re not going to succeed.” my jaw dropped.

    A few years later she went from being worth Billions of Ameros to No Ameros.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  27. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @de stijl:

    Now, he is the sane steadying hand on the tiller.

    (With apologies to the Beach Boys) “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @de stijl:

    How about an honest assessment of the actual threats to our country…

    I can see why Trump didn’t appoint you as National Security Advisor; how would we ever expand the war in Syria and justify one with NK based on “honest assessment of actual threats?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. Kylopod says:

    @de stijl:

    Beyond globalists and bankers, remember Stephen Miller’s “cosmopolitan” comments in the Acosta exchange.

    Keep in mind that Miller is himself Jewish.

    Not that that proves anything, of course! A lot of the alt right’s anti-Semitic dogwhistles are done with the full cooperation of right-wing Jews. For example, this notorious article from Breitbart, a pretty explicitly anti-Semitic attack on Anne Applebaum, was written by a Jew.

    Haaretz ran a fascinating article last year about this phenomenon, what it calls “auto anti-Semitism.” Of course the Jews in this category don’t see it that way. They think that they are the true guardians of their people and that the liberal Jewish masses are the traitors. You can see this attitude at work in another Breitbart article, the one in which David Horowitz called Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew.” That may sound overtly anti-Semitic on first glance, but when you read the article, the gist of it was that Kristol, in attacking Trump, was weakening the one candidate who would be good for Israel and strengthening Hillary, who would be a disaster for Israel. In other words, he was calling Kristol the equivalent of a House Negro or Uncle Tom.

    This is not quite the same brand of anti-Semitism that you’d see from David Duke, who among other things is virulently anti-Israel. In fact the Breitbart website acts practically as a mouthpiece for the Netanyahu government. But it enables collaboration with far-right groups who have a paranoid vision of Jewish elites nefariously pulling the strings. It’s impossible to understand Trump’s relationship with the alt right without getting this key point, and it’s why the whole “But but but… Ivanka!” response whenever the subject of Trump and anti-Semitism comes up is so short-sighted.

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