Bannon-McMaster Feud a Struggle for Soul of Trump Foreign Policy
Why the implications of the newest White House showdown run deeper than previous rivalries
Deep within the West Wing, there is a struggle raging for the soul of President Donald Trump’s foreign and military policies.
This struggle is often evident on Twitter, where Trump loyalists have used the “#FireMcMaster” hashtag as a swipe at the president’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.
The tensions are all a result of Trump’s original decision to name Michael Flynn as his first national security adviser. Flynn had to resign on February 13 for misleading Vice President Pence about Russia talks during the transition.
But as far as some insiders were concerned, Flynn’s ouster was just the first in what they hoped would be a series of departures from Trump’s national security team. For example, the National Security Council recently saw Flynn- and Trump-loyalist Ezra Cohen-Watnick booted out, a sign the national security culture is winning over Trump.
The appointment of Flynn, who brought several loyalists with him into the administration, was widely viewed as an insult to both the Democratic and Republican establishment staffers within the NSA and intelligence community. The move brought with it one of the largest reactions against a presidential appointment in the short history of Trump’s young presidency, said two Trump advisers inside the administration.
Flynn was seen as a menace to the establishment in both parties. Yet with Flynn gone, McMaster has still had trouble weeding out the top Trump loyalists on the National Security Council. That has begun to change.
McMaster is still weeding out populists inside the executive office buildings, along with other places on White House grounds and at the NSA.
Those loyalists tend to best reflect Trump’s thinking during the campaign: an America-first foreign policy that included a very skeptical eye toward foreign adventurism. These war skeptics tend to want to stay out of the Syrian civil war once the Islamic State is destroyed. They are best represented inside the West Wing by Steve Bannon, Trump’s top political adviser.
On the other side are McMaster’s thinkers, who want an American role in the defense of Eastern Europe against Russia, and in the rise of allies in the Middle East. This is what is generally called the “neoconservative” viewpoint, but it can also be shared by Democrats.
To Trump loyalists, the views of McMaster, an Army lieutenant general, represent the antithesis of what Trump preached on the campaign trail in 2016: interventionism, nation-building, endless war. To a nation weary of a 16-year war against Islamic terrorists and hostile nation-states, McMaster’s views seem to spell policy doom to Trump loyalists.
Top Trump advisers — at least two who have the ear of Trump — tell LifeZette that the McMaster worldview is largely shaped by one of his peers, retired Gen. David Petraeus, the former CIA director who was convicted of one charge of mishandling classified election after the 2012 election. Petraeus has no party, and served under President George W. Bush and then for President Barack Obama.
Petraeus is seen as wanting to extend the U.S. military presence in the world, while Trump loyalists want to focus on ISIS and Iran.
Trump took the side of McMaster on Friday, for now.
“General McMaster and I are working very well together,” the president said in a statement after a flurry of stories about the problems. “He is a good man and very pro-Israel. I am grateful for the work he continues to do serving our country.”
The civil war was brewing since McMaster came on board, but it began in earnest on July 31, when retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, formerly the head of Homeland Security, stepped in as Trump’s chief of staff. Kelly and McMaster are close. Further, Kelly craves stability.
Kelly reportedly gave McMaster job assurances, and Kelly took the green light to start clearing out some of Flynn’s loyalists. Derek Harvey, the NSC Middle East adviser, was ousted before Kelly arrived, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who reportedly helped Republicans build a case against Obama officials who had been snooping on Trump, was recently let go.
Harvey and Cohen-Watnick were too close to Bannon, some reports indicate. McMaster may not have liked their proximity to populism. Indeed, in April, McMaster engineered the removal of Bannon from a permanent seat on the NSC.
The new firings have infuriated some of the strongest Trump loyalists, on social media and in the heartland. Already, an anti-McMaster website has been erected by Mike Cernovich, an independent journalist who supports Trump.
Roger Stone, one of Trump’s top supporters, tweeted that a “coup” is underway, and is being carried out by generals whom Trump has placed in policy positions.
Kelly’s arrival in the West Wing has caused more heads to roll. On the national security front, most of those heads have belonged to war skeptics and populists.
“The intelligence community is extremely powerful, and the NSA ‘deep state’ shows at least a degree of politicization,” said Eddie Zipperer, an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Military College. “The NSA is way too powerful to be allowed to be politicized. If they had pulled something like this when Obama was president — something that appeared like they were trying to wrest control of America’s foreign policy away from the president — the mainstream media would have lost their marbles over it.”