President Donald Trump might be ready to fire Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and bring in his third national security adviser after just 14 months in office — amid signals the president is poised to execute a West Wing purge.
While Trump’s spokeswoman on Thursday night tried to shoot down the notion that McMaster’s ouster is imminent, she did not directly deny it was in the works.
Trump ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this week and has twice in recent days made clear he is mulling additional Cabinet and senior staff changes. The president has already ousted or accepted the resignation of a slew of Cabinet or senior West Wing officials, prompting Democratic lawmakers and others to say his presidency is dominated by chaos. He denies that.
“There will always be change, but very little,” the president told reporters Thursday in the Oval Office. “There will always be change. And I think you want to see change. I want to also see different ideas.”
That remark suggested Trump had tired of Tillerson’s ideas. A Washington Post report published Thursday evening cited multiple sources saying he also no longer values those of McMaster, who was brought in to bring stability to the National Security Council after the controversial Michael Flynn was let go two dozen days into Trump’s presidency.
Watch: Trump, Touting Pompeo’s ‘Energy,’ Says He Clashed with Tillerson on Iran Deal
Citing five sources, the Post reported that the president is ready to boot McMaster but is also willing to take some time before pulling the trigger to find a way to allow the Army general to save face.
That might mean a fourth star and return to a Pentagon or Army post. Or it could mean ensuring McMaster has a soft landing in “retirement” in a cushy and high-paying job at a Washington think tank or in the private sector; U.S. arms manufacturers, for instance, are always eager to hire recently retired generals.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to the report by tweeting that “there are no changes at the NSC.”
She wrote she had just talked with Trump and McMaster, and said the two “have a good working relationship.”
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
Sending McMaster packing in the wake of Tillerson’s ouster would be one move in a West Wing cleanup Trump appears eager to bring about.
“We’re really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want,” the president said Tuesday.
In recent weeks, Trump confidant and White House communications director Hope Hicks and Gary Cohn, his chief economic adviser, have stepped down. And earlier this week, his personal assistant Johnny McEntee resigned amid allegations of financial missteps. Those departures followed a slew of others, including multiple Cabinet secretaries and two deputy chiefs of staff, two deputy national security advisers, three communications directors, a press secretary, his longtime security director, and others.
The president has said he is eager to hear multiple views and voices on policy matters, but has admittedly followed his own gut recently when deciding to possibly meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, slap import tariffs on U.S. friends and foes, and fire his secretary of state.
Disagreements seem to have led to Tillerson’s ouster, with Trump telling reporters Tuesday that he and his pick to take over at Foggy Bottom, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, are “always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been very good and that’s what I need as secretary of State.”
The Iran nuclear deal was a key subject on which Trump and Tillerson clashed, the president said. “I think it’s terrible,” Trump said. “I guess he felt it was OK.”
That disagreement was not “OK” in the end. And differing stances on Russia might have been the last straw when it comes to McMaster’s employ at the White House.
The three-star Army general went to the Munich Security Conference last month and said there is “incontrovertible” evidence that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. election. Trump had been reluctant to say that, though he has been somewhat more equivocal on the matter recently.
Among the potential replacements for McMaster is John Bolton, who was President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations. A Roll Call reporter has witnessed Bolton heading into the West Wing on multiple occasions since Trump took office.
But Bolton is synonymous with the hawkish wing of the Republican Party, the faction that pushed hard for the 2003 Iraq war. Trump, for years, has harshly criticized that group for helping get the United States into armed conflicts that failed to achieve strategic objectives while costing the country trillions of dollars as domestic needs like infrastructure suffered.
That means, like his hiring of former Ronald Reagan aide and supply-side economist Larry Kudlow as his next chief economic adviser, it is not certain a Trump-Bolton relationship would go smoothly.