National Security

Trump’s 'Axis of Adults' Is Breaking Apart

If you thought grownups like Mattis, McMaster and Tillerson were secretly running the administration, think again.

The president and the grownups.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

At a town hall for National Security Council staffers last week, their boss, H.R. McMaster, had a message for those assembled. "There's no such thing as a holdover," the national security adviser said, referring to the career professionals who stayed on the council after the presidential transition in January. McMaster went on to say that career staffers are loyal to the president.

He was responding to a series of tweets from the blogger Mike Cernovich, who singled out some lower-level staffers, by name, as alleged leakers. He was standing by the people who worked for him.    

And while it’s admirable when a boss backs his workers, this event also highlights McMaster's own precarious position at the six-month mark of the Donald Trump administration. Behind the scenes, McMaster has had trouble replacing career staffers with new people from the Pentagon and the State Department. Until recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis had blocked many career public servants in their departments from being detailed to the National Security Council.  This meant, in practice, that officials who served in Barack Obama’s White House who were supposed to return to their bureaucratic homes stayed on longer at the council than their initial terms.

Most of the time, this would not be much of an issue. But the Trump White House is obsessed with leaks and the disloyalty of the administrative state. It's touchy. When McMaster came into the job in February, he declined requests from other White House senior staffers to purge holdovers perceived to be disloyal to the new president.  

This sub rosa conflict punctures a bit of Washington conventional wisdom about the court politics of the Trump White House. Call it the axis of adults. It includes McMaster, Tillerson and Mattis, and is seen as a counterweight to the populists such as senior strategist Steve Bannon. It's the pros against the amateurs, the restrainers against the encouragers.

And it's a comforting thought to the foreign policy establishment. But like most conventional wisdom in the Trump era, it's not exactly right. White House and administration officials tell me that McMaster has become estranged from Mattis and Tillerson in particular. As a result, he has seen much of his influence over the policy-making process diminished, and has become isolated inside the government.

Some of this is because of Trump himself. The president, as he showed again this week in the interview with the New York Times, is mercurial. (See Jeff Sessions).

In the case of McMaster, administration officials tell me he is perceived not to be a reliable messenger of the president's wishes. What's more, administration figures tell me, principals including Tillerson, Mattis and CIA director Mike Pompeo have a direct line to Trump. They can go around McMaster and make their case on interagency disputes directly to the commander in chief.

For a national security adviser, this dynamic is deadly. Traditionally, this job is supposed to coordinate policy throughout the government to meet the directives of the president. That job is next to impossible if the adviser isn't seen as speaking for the president. While all administrations experience infighting, rarely has a national security adviser been this weak. 

Some of this has made its way into the press. This week, there were reports that McMaster opposed the meeting Trump held with Putin earlier this month at the G-20 summit. A senior White House official told me this was wrong and that he encouraged the bilateral meeting in planning discussions. Still, it was Tillerson and not McMaster who attended the small Russia parley with Trump and a translator.

This dynamic has played out on other issues too. McMaster, for example, has asked the Pentagon for contingency plans for Syria on how many U.S. troops will be needed once Islamic State strongholds are cleared. The Pentagon has slow-rolled the requests. On Qatar, Tillerson has run the diplomacy to defuse the crisis with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with little input from the NSC.

McMaster has also seen his authority wane inside the west wing. Since taking the job in February, he has gone through four executive assistants, an important post that serves as the gate-keeper to the national security adviser and oversees his schedule.

McMaster has also clashed with Tom Bossert, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. On the organization chart for the White House, Bossert reports directly to Trump. He has key NSC directorates report to him as well, though Bossert and McMaster share responsibilities on counterterrorism. At the last minute, McMaster tried to cancel a trip Bossert took in June to Israel to address a cybersecurity forum, reflecting concerns from other department heads that NSC staffers were overstepping their roles in foreign travel. McMaster eventually withdrew his objections, and Bossert attended the conference in Tel Aviv.

None of this necessarily means that McMaster will soon be relieved of his duties. As anyone following the palace intrigue of the Trump inner circle knows, the status of the president’s aides and advisers can turn on a dime. But it does help explain why foreign policy so far has been chaotic for the Trump administration. The man who is supposed to be coordinating it is being undermined from outside and within the White House.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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