Gen. H.R. McMaster on Working for Trump, Being Non-Partisan


2 years ago



General H.R. McMaster is a retired United States Army lieutenant general who served as the 26th United States National Security Advisor from 2017 to 2018. He is also known for his roles in the Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom and is currently a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His books, "Battlegrounds" and "Dereliction of Duty" are bestsellers. He is host of the podcast "Battlegrounds: International Perspectives" and a regular on the podcast "Goodfellows."


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So how does that work? So a person like you is a national security adviser, like in a general. Who comes to you with these ideas and plans? Well it's your job to kind of convene the president's cabinet, the principal's committee of the national security council. And you know, Joe, I wrote about this in the book. I walked into that office really unexpectedly obviously, right? You know, I had been walking down Walnut Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, all my way to a think tank. My job at the time was design the future army. So I'm an active duty lieutenant general. And I was going to brief this think tank community, get their thoughts on a study that we had commissioned, almost a two year long study on Russia's annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine and Russian new generation warfare and what it meant, right, for developing the future army and the future military. And my phone rings and it's a partially blocked number from the White House. And they say, hey, the president would like you to interview for the job of national security adviser Mar-a-Lago on... It says partially? So it just says 202. It's just 202. That's it? That's it, yeah. Oh boy, this is some like Batman shit. So that's why I answered it. Typically I wouldn't answer my phone on the way to a meeting, but maybe I had to answer this one. So, you know, it came out of the blue. And so that was a Friday, right? And Sunday I'm interviewing for the job. He hires me on, you know, President's Day, Monday. I fly back to Washington, right? On Air Force One. Have you interviewed at Mar-a-Lago? At Mar-a-Lago. So you're having like shrimp cocktails? Hey, I didn't know how to get food there, man. So after the first interview, right, they said, hey, the president would probably like to talk to you again. So I stayed, they kept me there for the rest of the day. I went into the military aides office, you know, because I know those guys, you know, we're all in the military. So I'm hanging out in their office. I'm doing emails for my regular job and, you know, of course calling my wife and calling Katie and talking to her about it. And there's no food. I don't know how to get food. So I ate everything that those guys had. I ate their pistachio nuts, man. And I left my note, hey, sorry guys, I'll have to replenish your supplies. You can't ask Trump, hey buddy. Where does the man get a steak around here? I probably could have gotten some meatloaf or something. I'm sure I could have. Best opportunity. But so anyway, that one day I fly back to D.C. and I didn't even live in D.C. so they had these Osprey aircraft waiting to take me back to my house in Tidewater, Virginia. I packed a bag and I started on Tuesday, man. So it was quick, but I had this great gift that the Army gave me, which is the opportunity to study history, you know. And so I walk into, to me, McGeorge Bundy's office, the guy who was national security advisor when Vietnam became an American war. And I wrote a book called Dereliction of Duty about how and why Vietnam became an American war and identified all of the deficiencies in the decision making, policy making process, right, in Washington. So I resolved at least, okay, I'm not going to make the same mistakes, right. And so one of those mistakes, what you're alluding to is, you know, they didn't spend enough time thinking about the nature of the problem, right. They didn't frame out the problem. They just kind of designed thinking to think about it, right. So when I came into the job, you know, we established, you know, what I thought were the top 16 challenges to our security and prosperity in the world, right. And then we organized a framing effort around those. And we put together a meeting called a principal small group framing session where the president's cabinet, right, the Secretary of State and Defense and all the heads of the intelligence community, you know, come together to really approve how we've described the problem associated with Chinese Communist Party aggression, with Russian aggression, with Iran and Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon, with North Korea and North Korea's nuclear program and other threats from North Korea, threats that are occurring more frequently and are more consequential in cyberspace, for example. So as I came into the job, I was grateful for the opportunity to study it from a historical perspective anyway. Well, you're famously nonpartisan. You're a guy who didn't even vote while you were in active duty. You decided a long time ago that that was the best course of action to stay completely unbiased and to concentrate entirely on the goals and objectives of the military. So when you're with a guy like Trump, you're going to be associated politically. Like if you're a part of the Trump administration, it's like you're immediately associated with Trump and then with all of the good and the bad that comes with that. So was that a shock to the system? Like what was that like to go from you get this phone call from this weird number, all of a sudden you're in Mar-a-Lago trying to find some food and then you're the national security advisor? I really think it was a benefit to stay on active duty. I really think that ... I mean, I know like you do. When I look at the polarization in our society today, this partisan politics, I think, okay, why can't we just talk about what we can agree on? So I think in the area of foreign policy, that ought to be an area where we could agree. Who wants Iran to have a nuclear weapon? Who wants the only hereditary communist dictatorship in the world, the Kim family regime of North Korea, to have the most destructive weapons on earth? Who wants Russia to intimidate all the countries on its periphery, develop destabilizing nuclear weapons, try to coerce us like they're doing now? Who wants to try to eat our lunch economically? Okay, let's talk about that across partisan lines. You shouldn't be partisan issues. So I think Donald Trump was the fifth commander in chief. I served in uniform when I took the oath of office at West Point, or the oath at West Point as a plea there in, gosh, the summer of 1980, Reagan was president. So it didn't matter to me who the commander in chief was. I was going to do my best to fulfill my oath, which was to support and defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same. I felt like I could serve Trump well by helping him determine his agenda. He's the guy that got elected, right? And then once he made decisions to help orchestrate the sensible implementation of his decisions. And that's the job I took on.