"I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me," bragged Donald J. Trump in November, 2015.
Once President, he proceeded to nominate retired US Marine Corps general John Kelly to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, retired Marine general James Mattis for Secretary of Defense, and retired US Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn as his national security advisor.
Flynn was not fired until 18 days after the White House learned that he had lied to the Vice-President about his contacts with Russian ambassador Kislyak. He was replaced by Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. It's clear that he (and even more so he and Mattis) have a great deal of influence over the Administration's foreign policy, especially given that it has not been as bizarre as expected of a President who admires Russia's Vladimir Putin and other strongmen, and knew upon being elected less about foreign affairs than a fifth grader.
Military scholar and author Thomas E. Ricks notes that Mattis on May 25
appeared before cameras at the White House to respond to a Washington Post article reporting that the president had shared sensitive intelligence about terrorism with Russian visitors. This information was sufficiently detailed, some intelligence officials feared, that it might enable interested parties to determine the source of that intelligence.
Not so, said General McMaster. “The story that came out tonight as reported is false,” he stated emphatically.
The next day, he appeared again before the cameras. This time his line was: “the premise of that article is false—that in any way the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or that resulted in any kind of lapse in national security.” That’s what people in Washington say when they can’t dispute the facts in a given article, but still dislike it.
On the president’s first foreign trip, McMaster has continued to defend Trump, for example, expressing over the weekend a lack of concern about reports that Trump’s son-in-law and confidant Jared Kushner sought to establish a secret, back-channel line of communication to the Russian government that would be hidden from the U.S. national security apparatus.
“We have backchannel communications with a number of countries,” McMaster said during a press availability in Italy. “What that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner, so I’m not concerned.”
Therefore, Ricks believes, McMaster should resign because he has not been a check on the President's foolish behavior as Trump
continues to stumble through his foreign policy—embracing autocrats, alienating allies and embarrassing Americans who understand that NATO has helped keep peace in Europe for more than 65 years.
Thinking over this, I worry that having people like McMaster around Trump simply enables Trump. Mature national security specialists seasoned in the ways of Washington simply lend an air of occasional competence to an otherwise shambolic White House. By appearing before the cameras, looking serious and speaking rationally, they add a veneer of normality to this administration.
And yet, as of now, the military troika of McMaster, Mattis, and Kelly remains in power. If I didn't know any better, I might think that President Trump is enamored of generals.
Or maybe not. The key lies in Ricks' observation that McMaster is not "improving Trump. Rather, what I have seen so far is Trump degrading McMaster."
Like a raccoon eating garbage or a mother calling at the worst time, it's what he does. In early December, The New Republic's Alex Shepard and Laura Reston wrote
Trump gets a perverse sense of satisfaction from deflating his opponents—especially the heirs of the two great political dynasties from the last four decades, both of whom he gave demeaning nicknames. (Crooked Hillary! Low-Energy Jeb!) He made his humiliations as personal as possible, and the sheer number of people belittled, debased, and embarrassed in the crossfire was breathtaking.
H.R. McMaster has the title, the medals, the bearing, and the respect (so far, anyway) of colleagues and of Washington . If Trump keeps it going, humiliating a general can be akin to the cherry on top of the cake, perhaps even better than debasing blowhard Christopher J. Christie.
Now on his third marriage, Donald Trump appears to have been a bad husband; with his bankruptices, a bad businessman; with his failure thus far to ban Muslims, get tax cuts for the wealthy, or make ISIL and Kim Jong Un bow down to him, an impotent President. But just as Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris, Donald J. Trump- real estate swindler, President, or ex-President- will always have someone to humiliate. It's what he does.