Is US security adviser McMaster next in line for axing by emboldened Trump? White House says no, but rumours swirl
US President Donald Trump has decided to remove H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser and is actively discussing potential replacements, according to five people with knowledge of the plans, preparing to deliver yet another jolt to the senior ranks of his administration.
Trump is now comfortable with ousting McMaster, with whom he never personally gelled, but is willing to take time executing the move because he wants to ensure both that the three-star Army general is not humiliated and that there is a strong successor lined up, these people said.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said there was no such plan.
“Just spoke to @POTUS and General H.R. McMaster – contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC,” Sanders wrote on Twitter.
Nevertheless, the sources said there is a broad potential shake-up under consideration by Trump that is likely to include senior officials at the White House, where staffers are gripped by fear and uncertainty as they await the next move from an impulsive president who enjoys stoking conflict.
Just spoke to @POTUS and Gen. H.R. McMaster - contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC.
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) March 16, 2018
For all of the evident disorder, Trump feels emboldened, advisers said – buoyed by what he views as triumphant decisions last week to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium and to agree to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The president is enjoying the process of assessing his team and making changes, tightening his inner circle to those he considers survivors and who respect his unconventional style, one senior White House official said.
Just days ago, Trump used Twitter to fire Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state whom he disliked, and moved to install his close ally, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, in the job. On Wednesday, he named conservative TV analyst Larry Kudlow to replace his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, who quit over trade disagreements.
And on Thursday, Trump signalled that more personnel moves were likely. “There will always be change,” the president told reporters. “And I think you want to see change. I want to also see different ideas.”
This portrait of the Trump administration in turmoil is based on interviews with 19 presidential advisers and administration officials, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer candid perspectives.
Many aides were particularly unsettled by the firing of the president’s long-time personal aide, John McEntee, who was marched out of the White House on Tuesday after his security clearance was abruptly revoked.
“Everybody fears the perp walk,” one senior White House official said. “If it could happen to Johnny, the president’s body guy, it could happen to anybody.”
Trump recently told White House Chief of Staff John Kelly that he wants McMaster out and asked for help weighing replacement options, according to two people familiar with their conversations. The president has complained that McMaster is too rigid and that his briefings go on too long and seem irrelevant.
Several candidates have emerged as possible McMaster replacements, including John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, and Keith Kellogg, the chief of staff of the National Security Council.
Kellogg travels with Trump on many domestic trips, in part because the president likes his company and thinks he is fun. Bolton has met with Trump several times and often agrees with the president’s instincts. Trump also thinks Bolton, who regularly praises the president on Fox News Channel, is good on television.
Some in the White House have been reluctant to see McMaster ousted from his national security perch until he has a promotion to four-star rank or other comfortable landing spot. They are eager to show that someone can serve in the Trump administration without suffering severe damage to their reputation.
McMaster is not the only senior official on thin ice with the president. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has attracted Trump’s ire for his spending decisions as well as for general disorder in the senior leadership of his agency.
Others considered at risk for being fired or reprimanded include Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who has generated bad headlines for ordering a US$31,000 dining room set for his office; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has been under fire for his first-class travel at taxpayer expense; and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose agency spent US$139,000 to renovate his office doors.
Meanwhile, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos drew attention this week when she stumbled through a pair of high-profile television interviews. Kelly watched DeVos’ sit-down with Lesley Stahl of CBS’s 60 Minutes with frustration and complained about the secretary’s apparent lack of preparation, officials said. Other Trump advisers mocked DeVos’ shaky appearance with Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s Today show.
Kelly’s own ouster has been widely speculated for weeks. But two top officials said Trump on Thursday morning expressed disbelief to Vice-President Mike Pence, senior advisers and Kelly himself that Kelly’s name was surfacing on media watch lists because his job is secure. Trump and Kelly then laughed about it, the officials said.
Trump enjoys watching his subordinates compete for his approval. Many of the rumours are fuelled by Trump himself because he complains to aides and friends about other staffers, or muses about who might make good replacements.
“I like conflict. I like having two people with different points of view,” Trump said last week, rapping his fists toward one another to simulate a clash. “I like watching it, I like seeing it, and I think it’s the best way to go.”
Additional reporting by Bloomberg