How Trump could give the Pentagon a McMaster problem

The growing expectation that President Donald Trump is going to force out Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser raises a quandary: would the Army take him back?

Like his precarious position in the White House over the past year, McMaster’s stormy relationship with the Army leadership is nearly legendary due to his questioning of orthodoxy and brusque manner.

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Now, the Pentagon is grappling with what to do with the military’s leading warrior-intellectual should he become the latest Trump aide to be replaced, according to multiple current and former officers and administration officials — a predicament that even McMaster himself hinted at on Friday, when he told a reporter that “everybody has got to leave the White House at some point.”

“This is everybody’s favorite parlor game right now: where does H.R. go?” said a senior Army officer who was not authorized to speak publicly. “He’ll upset some apple carts whether he comes back as a three- or a four-star, because he was in the process of retiring when he got the national security adviser job so no one’s been keeping a seat warm for him to come back in.”

A lot will depend, the officers and officials said, on how much Trump and in his inner circle have soured on McMaster, a hard-charging career military officer who never gelled with the undisciplined commander-in-chief — even if he gained the loyalty of the policy-making apparatus for bringing some stability to a rocky administration.

Trump might be convinced, as some of McMaster’s supporters hope, to reward him like President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, then-Lt. Gen. Colin Powell, who was promoted to four-star general and eventually became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In that case, the top brass would have little choice but to acquiesce, possibly by shifting other generals around. Some active-duty officers suggested in a series of interviews that viable options could be to serve as the commander of troops in Afghanistan, where he previously served, or Korea, where he has not served but has been deeply involved in policy questions at the White House.

“There is no reason the president can’t make him a four-star and give him any four-star job he wants to,” said a retired senior officer who remains in close contact with the Pentagon leadership. “There’s plenty of precedent. The two most obvious ones to me are in Afghanistan and in Korea, both of which he’s been intimately involved with as national security adviser and in both of which the sitting commanders are toward the end of their tours.”

Unlike some stateside Army commands, both posts would keep him mostly away from his Army peers, the retired officer noted, and “would have the advantage of getting him away from Washington.”

Others expressed doubts about such a promotion, citing likely opposition within the ranks and the scant number of available slots at that level that McMaster would be suited for.

The Army only has a certain number of “billets” to fill for each rank — fewer and fewer the higher the rank. Four-star general is the highest in the command structure and unless plans have been made in advance it would be difficult, though not impossible, to assign another officer at that level.

“There just aren’t a lot of four-star jobs out there,” said a another retired senior officer.

Others said a possibility under discussion is to send McMaster back to the Army at his current rank of three-star general. That would open up more job possibilities, such as the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; a post at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where the service trains its future leaders and develops warfighting doctrine; or running the Army’s newest outfit, the Futures Command, which is just being established to oversee the service’s weapons acquisition efforts.

The West Point or Fort Leavenworth jobs could be potentially good fits for McMaster’s academic pedigree, including his PhD in military history.

“If he came back as a three-star, there’s the superintendency at West Point for which he would be very well suited and which would probably be appealing to him,” said the active-duty general, who spoke on the condition he not be identified discussing internal discussions. “Taking him to an academic setting would seem to make the most sense.”

But it is the Futures Command, the officer said, that is “the one that I’ve heard most people mention as a possibility.”

Yet offering McMaster such a new post with no promotion could also be seen as a slight.

“Does he decide to take a position that he’s offered if he doesn’t feel it’s worthy of his experience and the position he’s coming from?” offered the first retired senior officer who spoke to POLITICO. “I think it’s a 50-50 question of whether he decides to go or not.”

That’s nothing new for McMaster, whose future in the Army has long been in question.

He first came to prominence as a junior officer leading a tank company in combat during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He burst into the public eye in 1997 when he published a best-selling book critiquing the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War — and then again in 2005 as commander of an armored cavalry regiment that pacified the Iraqi city of Tel Afar by applying innovative tactics that were later adopted by Gen. David Petraeus on a larger scale.

But he was passed over for promotion and only reached general with the intervention of his patron Petraeus.

Since then, McMaster has not held a traditional Army command like a division or corps — the standard ladder that generals climb to the service’s top ranks. McMaster has instead helped shape Army warfighting doctrine and run the service’s infantry and armor training schools.

When Trump took office, he was preparing for retirement, according to current and former senior officers close to McMaster.

H.R. hasn’t commanded a line unit since he was a colonel,” said the first retired senior officer, “so if anybody is thinking in terms of Korea for him, he has no Korea experience and he hasn’t had any general officer line command experience.”

Others intimately familiar with the command structure weren’t as doubtful.

“The fact that he didn’t command a division or corps, in my opinion, is immaterial,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik. “You just have to look at the commands where the timing is right, where the guy in place has been there a couple years.”

Another wild card, however, is Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general himself.

Said the active-duty general: “No one really knows whether Mattis will agree to bring him back.”

White House staffer left email passwords on official stationery at bus stop: report

A White House staffer left the password to his encrypted email account at a bus stop in Washington, D.C., according to a new report.

Ryan McAvoy left his ProtonMail passwords and email address on a piece of White House stationery at a bus stop near the White House, The Intercept reported Saturday. 

Someone reportedly found the piece of paper and turned it over to The Intercept, which said that it confirmed its authenticity. The aide, who works as a staff assistant in the White House, did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment.


House Intelligence Committee Democrats said Wednesday they are interested in filing a subpoena to see how Trump campaign officials used WhatsApp, a messaging service. 

Democrats said they want to see how how senior White House adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerKushner resisting giving up top access amid scrutiny over security clearances: report Kelly says he has ‘full confidence’ in Kushner on foreign policy White House: Security clearance review won’t affect Kushner MORE and other campaign employees are using the messaging app and others such as iMessage, Facebook Messenger, Signal, Slack, Instagram and Snapchat on the encrypted networks. 

The committee may consider adding ProtonMail to that list, The Intercept reported. 

Last September, it was reported that six members of Trump’s administration used private email addresses while conducting government business.  

President TrumpDonald John TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truth Woman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Shulkin says he has White House approval to root out ‘subversion’ at VA MORE and Republicans had attacked former Democratic candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWoman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Trump: CNN, MSNBC ‘got scammed’ into covering Russian-organized rally Pennsylvania Democrats set to win big with new district map MORE over her use of a private email server while serving as secretary of State, calling it reckless.

Democrats on the Intelligence panel released a memo on Wednesday to lay out their responsibilities in the Trump-Russia investigation, which Republican members have said is wrapping up. Democrats, meanwhile, have pledged to continue their investigation.

Schumer: ‘Severe consequences’ if Trump moves to shut down Mueller probe

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats now attack internet rules they once embraced Schumer: Trump budget would ‘cripple’ gun background checks Schumer: Senate Republicans’ silence ‘deafening’ on guns, Russia MORE (D-N.Y.) on Saturday warned of “severe consequences” if President TrumpDonald John TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truth Woman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Shulkin says he has White House approval to root out ‘subversion’ at VA MORE moves to shut down the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Schumer cited comments by Trump’s personal attorney John Dowd on Saturday asking the deputy attorney general to “bring an end” to the “fraudulent” investigation he claimed was constructed to undermine the president. 

“The president, the administration, and his legal team must not take any steps to curtail, interfere with, or end the special counsel’s investigation or there will be severe consequences from both Democrats and Republicans,” Schumer said in a statement.


Dowd called on Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinOvernight Cybersecurity: Lawyer charged in Mueller probe pleads guilty to lying | Sessions launches cyber task force | White House tallies economic impact of cyber crime Sessions creates cyber task force to study election interference Dopey Russian ads didn’t swing voters — federal coverups did MORE to follow the “courageous example” of the FBI’s internal watchdog that recommended former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeDopey Russian ads didn’t swing voters — federal coverups did Federal abuses on Obama’s watch represent a growing blight on his legacy In the case of the FISA memos, transparency is national security MORE be fired. Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsUnder pressure, Trump shifts blame for Russia intrusion Overnight Tech: Judge blocks AT&T request for DOJ communications | Facebook VP apologizes for tweets about Mueller probe | Tech wants Treasury to fight EU tax proposal Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won’t stand MORE announced McCabe’s firing on Friday.

The Trump attorney said in a statement obtained by The Hill that Rosenstein should “bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss [former FBI Director] James ComeyJames Brien ComeyDopey Russian ads didn’t swing voters — federal coverups did Assessing Trump’s impeachment odds through a historic lens Drama surrounding Shulkin — what is the future of VA health care? MORE based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier.”

Schumer, who has defended special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE against Trump’s insistence that the federal probe is a “witch hunt,” said Dowd’s statement was “yet another indication that the first instinct of the president and his legal team is not to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but to undermine him at every turn.” 

The top Senate Democrat previously called for Congress to unite in protecting Mueller from dismissal after it was reported Trump had once ordered the special counsel to be fired.

Trump slams Comey, claiming corruption at ‘highest levels of the FBI, Justice & State’

Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty Images

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump on Saturday upped his attacks on former FBI Director James Comey, accusing him of turning a blind eye to “lies” and “leaks” at the agency as the firestorm over the firing of Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe, continued.

“The Fake News is beside themselves that McCabe was caught, called out and fired,” the president wrote on Twitter. “How many hundreds of thousands of dollars was given to wife’s campaign by Crooked H friend, Terry M, who was also under investigation? How many lies? How many leaks? Comey knew it all, and much more!”

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Comey, who is about to begin a book tour, was quick to respond.

“The American people will hear my story very soon,” Comey wrote on Twitter. “And they can judge for themselves who is honorable and who is not.”

Earlier, Trump attacked officials at “the highest levels” of FBI and Justice and State Departments, tweeting: “As the House Intelligence Committee has concluded, there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump Campaign. As many are now finding out, however, there was tremendous leaking, lying and corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, Justice & State. #DrainTheSwamp”

The back-and-forth came a day after Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired McCabe, saying the FBI deputy director “had made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor — including under oath — on multiple occasions.”

The president has long targeted McCabe, a key Comey confidant, over campaign donations received by his wife when she ran for Virginia state senate, claiming it was evidence of a plot by Democrats and the “deep state” to smear Trump after his 2016 election win. Trump fired then FBI Director Comey in May 2017.

The House Intelligence Committee’s concluded earlier this week that there is no evidence of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia during the 2016 election — although top Democrats on the committee said they were not given a chance to view the summary of the Republican-controlled panel’s findings before they were made public, and have called the decision to end the investigation premature.

In an interview with POLITICO, McCabe said the episode, including being the subject of multiple tweets from the president, had been “personally devasting” and “tough on my family.”

Tillerson’s ouster prolongs limbo for empty State Department jobs

President Donald Trump’s decision to dump Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will likely mean further delays in filling dozens of empty posts at the State Department, undermining U.S global diplomacy at an unusually sensitive time.

Foreign governments are already unsure who is shaping American policy, whom they should contact with questions and requests, and how to handle Trump’s often unpredictable, go-it-alone approach to world affairs. The U.S. president recently announced he would hold an unprecedented meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by the end of May; he’s also weighing the fate of the Iran nuclear deal.

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Some Trump aides expect Tillerson’s named replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, to scratch one key Tillerson nominee: Susan Thornton, a career diplomat who had been in line to assume the State Department’s top East Asia post, dealing with China and North Korea.

The lag in filling positions is raising concern in Congress, where Pompeo is tentatively scheduled to face his own confirmation hearing on April 12.

Pompeo is expected to visit the State Department on Monday for handover talks with Tillerson, according to an internal readout of a State Department meeting obtained by POLITICO. Top officials there have been told to prepare to brief Pompeo on “hot topics” ahead of his confirmation hearing — although because Pompeo is still running the CIA, “it is unclear how much time Secretary-designate Pompeo will spend in this building prior to confirmation,” the readout said.

Of 163 Senate-confirmed positions for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, 65 positions don’t yet have a nominee, while many nominees have yet to be confirmed, according to congressional staffers. Among the empty slots: the ambassador to South Korea and the assistant secretary of state who oversees the Middle East.

Trump has blamed Senate Democrats for the plethora of empty offices in the State Department and beyond. “Hundreds of good people, including very important Ambassadors and Judges, are being blocked and/or slow walked by the Democrats in the Senate. Many important positions in Government are unfilled because of this obstruction. Worst in U.S. history!” the president tweeted Wednesday.

But Democrats say Trump and his Cabinet aides are the ones at fault, especially when it comes to the diplomatic ranks. “The fact is this administration has failed to nominate critical high-level positions, leaving a void of empowered voices and gaping vacancies in embassies in some of the world’s most troubled regions and in Foggy Bottom,” said New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Friday. “We cannot confirm nominees who have not been nominated.”

Although the White House plays a major role in choosing nominees — and often rejected Tillerson’s choices — Pompeo is expected to review current and potential names for the open jobs at State as he shapes the institution closer to his worldview, which is notably more hawkish than Tillerson’s.

Many believe Thornton, the current nominee to serve as assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, will be the first to go. She appeared before the Senate in mid-February for her confirmation hearing.

Thornton’s critics say she is too soft on China. Steve Bannon, a former White House adviser who advocates a tougher approach to Beijing, publicly bragged about trying to sideline the career diplomat. Bannon was fired before that could happen, and Tillerson, who came to admire Thornton, convinced the White House to nominate her. But Tillerson’s ouster has cost Thornton her champion, and Pompeo has little incentive to back her given Trump’s more hardline positions on China in recent weeks.

But if Pompeo pulls Thornton’s nomination, it would send a demoralizing signal to other career staffers hoping to advance at State. The White House recently rejected a handful of career diplomats that Tillerson had put forth for ambassadorships, according to a State Department official familiar with the matter. The reasoning wasn’t clear.

Modern-era presidents have typically given around 70 percent of ambassador slots to the career diplomats and the rest to political hires, whose ranks often include campaign donors. According to the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union, Trump’s ambassador picks so far have been 61 percent political, 39 percent career.

Given that Pompeo has reportedly been preparing to replace Tillerson for months, it’s possible he already has a list of names for top State slots. And because he has a better relationship with Trump than Tillerson did, he is likely to be more successful in getting the president to sign off on his choices.

Regardless, it can take months for nominees to go through the White House’s vetting procedures and then be confirmed by a Senate Republicans narrowly control, 51-49. That raises the possibility that some top positions may remain vacant into 2019.

Pompeo’s own confirmation is no slam dunk. One fellow Republican, Rand Paul of Kentucky, already has said he opposes Pompeo in part because of his apparent support for “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or torture.

Trump announced Tillerson’s firing via a tweet on Tuesday. Tillerson’s last day in the office is slated to be March 22, although his commission as secretary of state officially ends March 31, according to the internal State Department readout. Tillerson already has delegated “all authorities,” as the readout put it, to the deputy secretary of state, John Sullivan.

In a farewell session with top aides, Tillerson lamented that the department had “failed to modernize its personnel practices and was being overtaken by other agencies,” according to the readout. It was an admission that his efforts to “redesign” State had not achieved much yet. Tillerson said he hoped that Pompeo would keep that initiative going.

A handful of top aides to Tillerson will leave as well, including his chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, and his deputy chief of staff, Christine Ciccone. Those two aides were widely disliked within the State Department for tightly restricting access to Tillerson, which bogged down decision-making.

But one Tillerson adviser is expected to stick around under Pompeo, at least for a few months. Brian Hook, the director of the secretary’s Policy Planning Staff is arguably the second most-powerful person at State, playing a major role in crafting and negotiating policy, often to the detriment of other bureaus at the department. Hook has cultivated solid relationships with close Trump advisers, and observers expect Pompeo to retain Hook for a while for continuity.

A former George W. Bush administration official well known in Republican foreign policy circles, Hook was in Vienna on Friday meeting with foreign diplomats to discuss the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has threatened to withdraw from the deal in May unless new limits are applied to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, though foreign governments are skeptical that is possible.

There is little love lost for Tillerson at the State Department, where many employees felt sidelined and thought he was to determined to trim staff. At the same time, State workers feel Trump treated Tillerson poorly and fired him dishonorably, and worry about what Pompeo’s hardline views will mean for U.S. diplomacy.

Tillerson sent out a note to State staffers Friday in which he praised their patriotism and hard work. The former ExxonMobil CEO, who had no formal diplomatic experience before taking over as secretary in February 2017, said it had been “one of the great privileges” of his life to serve alongside the State Department staffers. He made no mention of Trump or Pompeo, but he urged department employees to “embrace an orderly and smooth transition process.”

“I am proud of what we have accomplished together,” he wrote. “I am proud of you.”