There are many ways to look at President Trump’s disclosure of extreme secrets to Russia’s top diplomats last week: an appalling security breach that would land anyone else in prison for years; a betrayal of a sensitive ally—Israel, according to the New York Times—that will make other allies reluctant to share intelligence with Washington again; a sick-comic plot twist that a satirical novelist would discard as too improbable.
But there is another, simply sad aspect to the spectacle: the tarnishing of a good man’s honor. I speak of the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, one of America’s finest soldiers, a public servant who has been all but incapable of guile throughout his career, now soaked in the swamp of deceit in the service of Trump.
Monday evening, in the wake of the Washington Post’s story on the breach, McMaster appeared before reporters and cameras (after at first turning away from them saying, “This is the last place on earth I wanted to be”), and read a script nearly identical to the statements released by the two other senior officials who’d been in the Oval Office with Trump and the Russians.
This script amounted to a classic “nondenial denial” but with a slightly more deceptive twist, in that it was a denial of claims that the Post story never made.
And here is where the tale gets sad, bordering on tragic. McMaster has built his entire reputation—the past 20 years of his career—on his embodiment and celebration of honesty. He first came to prominence, as an Army major, with a Ph.D. dissertation-turned-book arguing that the U.S. military’s top generals betrayed their constitutional duties by failing to give civilian leaders their unvarnished military advice during the Vietnam War. The book was titled Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, and it was a critique of the deceit that ruled Washington in a dreadful time.
In a 2006 profile of McMaster as a colonel leading the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq, New Yorker journalist George Packer remarked that there were “more than a few echoes of the Iraq war” in his book. As Packer reported, McMaster “laughed and said, ‘I can’t even touch that.’ ”
Back then, of course, McMaster was a midlevel officer in wartime, giving orders to his troops but also carrying out the policy laid down in Washington. He had no business dishing out comments or critiques. But now he is a general and a policy adviser. In some ways, he is in the same position as the officers whom he criticized in his book for their dishonesty. And while we don’t know what he tells this president in private, his exculpation of Trump in public also carries “more than a few echoes” of the statements by the earlier generation of generals that the younger McMaster had condemned.
Let’s parse the statement that McMaster read in front of the White House on Monday night:
The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false. … At no time, at no time, were intelligence sources or methods discussed. The president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. … I was in the room. It didn’t happen.
This is a carefully composed statement: not strictly a lie but clearly a deception. “The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false.” That italicized phrase is key: It allows McMaster to ponder one or two minor errors in the story and thus label the entire piece (“as reported”) false. The following morning, at a press conference inside the White House, McMaster was asked if he still contended the story was false. He replied, “I stand by my statement”—presumably including the phrase as reported.
“At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed.” The Post story never contended that they were discussed. The reporters, Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe, both very fine national-security journalists, wrote that Trump revealed information from which the Russian officials—Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak—could readily make inferences about sources and methods.
“The president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.” In fact, the Post story didn’t claim, even indirectly, that Trump discussed military operations. The topic of his conversation was intelligence information that ISIS was plotting to put bombs inside laptops with the intent of having agents carry them onboard airplanes.
“I was in the room. It didn’t happen.” What didn’t happen? It’s not at all clear.
McMaster’s appearance in the White House press room on Tuesday morning amounted to more of the same. After briefing reporters on Trump’s upcoming trip to Europe and the Middle East, he took questions, most of them about the meeting with the Russians. Several times, he said that Trump’s remarks were “wholly appropriate.” Asked when Trump decided to share the intelligence, McMaster replied that it is “wholly appropriate for the president to share any information he thinks” would benefit U.S. security.
In other words, McMaster seemed to be repeating the argument made on Monday by several of Trump’s defenders—that because the power to classify and declassify information resides with the president, he has the right (it is “wholly appropriate”) to say anything to anyone that he wants. In a narrow, legal sense, this claim is correct. But just because the president can do something, that doesn’t mean he should. He also has the legal power to launch nuclear missiles without consulting anyone. That doesn’t mean it’s a smart idea to do so.
Then McMaster went further. After denying that Trump’s statements to the Russians endangered national security, he asserted that the leaks about those statements did endanger security. McMaster was, uncharacteristically, flailing.
He was then asked why, if the disclosure wasn’t harmful, White House counterterrorism officials called the CIA and NSA right after the meeting to let those agencies know what happened. McMaster said he hasn’t talked with those officials about their calls or motives, and this might be true. None of the White House reporters, however, asked McMaster to address the following passage in the Post story:
The Post is withholding most plot details, including the name of the city [where the intelligence was gathered], at the urging of officials who warned that revealing them would jeopardize important intelligence capabilities.
Two points follow from this. First, why would officials urge the Post to withhold details about the ISIS plot—details that Trump revealed to the Russians—unless those details did jeopardize intelligence sources? Second, it is noteworthy that by withholding those details, the reporters and editors of the Washington Post—and of the New York Times and Reuters, which confirmed the story from their own sources and also refrained from publishing those details—seem to care more about national security than Trump does.
It is unlikely that Trump gave away code word–classified secrets—crown jewels of an allied nation’s intelligence—because he’s malevolent or a Russian spy. The more plausible explanations are that he doesn’t understand much of what he’s told; that he doesn’t quite grasp why some information is particularly sensitive; that he’s talkative, boastful, amazingly vulnerable to foreign leaders’ feigned camaraderie, and thus easy for them to play as a mark. (See also his sudden friendship with that “terrific person,” Chinese President Xi Jinping.) After Trump won the Republican nomination last summer, some intelligence officials were leery of giving him classified briefings, fearful that he couldn’t keep a secret. What happened in the Oval Office with the Russians illustrates why they were leery. And now that he’s president, key allies are leery too.
So what are McMaster’s options? Clearly he is in a spot. I should stress here that I have not in any way communicated with McMaster since he took his new job; but I suspect that, regardless of any discomfort he might feel, he considers it his patriotic duty to stay where he is. He has, on a few occasions, phoned foreign officials to wave away false or disturbing statements that Trump has made. For instance, after Trump said he might make South Korea pay for the THAAD missile-defense system that the U.S. recently installed, McMaster called to assure officials that we would cover the costs (reportedly to Trump’s annoyance). McMaster may regard himself and some of his staff as the grown-ups in the White House, well positioned to prevent the president from doing something terrible. I suspect that Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson feel the same way. They may be right, and in the end their decision to stay on the job may win them the thanks of the nation. In the meantime, though, their legacies are in jeopardy, and their characters in doubt. In the case of McMaster, many of his longtime friends and colleagues are in despair; one of them emailed me that McMaster’s statement on Monday left him “heartbroken.”
Almost certainly, McMaster is aware of all this. At the same time, he is still an active-duty officer, duty-bound to obey all legal orders from his commander in chief and perhaps inclined to regard him with respect. Will he remain conscious of the tension between his obligations and his character, asserting the latter whenever opportunities arise? Or will the former subsume all else? This is the dilemma faced by all Trump appointees who didn’t share his temperament or ideology going into the job. It is particularly poignant to see it playing out in one of the U.S. Army’s most conscientious figures.