Trump Makes Snap Move to Oust McMaster as Russia Decision Looms

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(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump made a snap decision to oust H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, moving as the administration weighs tough actions against Russia and acting far sooner than many White House aides expected.

McMaster’s departure had been the subject of intense speculation in recent days, yet most administration officials thought it wouldn’t come for weeks. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said just a week ago that the two men had a great working relationship.

But Trump changed all that on Thursday evening, abruptly replacing McMaster with John Bolton, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and proponent of the 2003 Iraq War best known for his hawkish views.

The move was announced by Trump on Twitter so quickly on Thursday afternoon that many of the president’s top aides didn’t know it was coming.

Even by the standards of Trump, it was a turbulent day that left staff frustrated and demoralized. Earlier, the president rattled markets by imposing tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese imports, saw one of his top lawyers in the Russia probe quit in frustration and watched Congress struggle to try to avoid a government shutdown.

Read more: This is John Bolton’s view of the world

The ride isn’t over: Sunday brings a “60 Minutes” interview with porn actress Stormy Daniels, who is expected to say she slept with Trump just months after his wife Melania gave birth to their son in 2006.

North Korea

The McMaster move also means Trump is heading into talks with North Korea with a new national security team, having also just sacked his top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Trump’s tariffs meanwhile risk alienating one of the most important countries to the success of those talks, China -- which retaliated early Friday with $3 billion in levies on imports from the U.S.

McMaster’s exit also comes as Trump faces tough decisions on whether to punish Russia for the attempted assassination of a former spy in the U.K. His security advisers discussed on Wednesday a list of options to present to the president, including fresh sanctions, closing consulates and expelling Russians from the U.S., according to two people familiar with the matter. Trump has been asking aides what allies -- including France and Germany -- are doing in response to the attack, conducted with what the U.K. says was a Soviet Union-designed nerve agent.

Earlier this week, McMaster briefed Trump for a call with Vladimir Putin and didn’t warn against offering congratulations on the Russian leader’s election win, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Written guidance prepared for the president by White House advisers ahead of Tuesday’s phone call explicitly cautioned against complimenting Putin. But in a verbal briefing he personally delivered to Trump before the call, McMaster didn’t emphasize what not to say about the election, said the people, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.

Trump likely didn’t read the written guidance before speaking with his Russian counterpart, and he ended up offering good wishes to Putin on his re-election. That congratulatory message -- uttered as the U.S. considers a tougher stance toward Moscow -- prompted sharp criticism from senior Republican lawmakers and intensified tensions among White House aides involved in Russia matters.

McMaster’s omission may not have made much difference. By the time the call was set up at Trump’s request, two of the people said, most of the president’s advisers widely believed their boss wanted to congratulate Putin and would have ignored any advice to the contrary.

The administration’s stance toward Russian President Vladimir Putin had been the source of friction between McMaster and Trump. Last month, McMaster echoed the sentiments of top U.S. intelligence officials who told Congress that Russians are targeting the 2018 elections with potential cyber attacks and efforts to sow political division.

Trump Conflict

“The evidence is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain, whereas in the past it was difficult to attribute,” McMaster said on Feb. 17, after Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted a Russian “troll farm” and its operators for an alleged covert social media campaign to influence the election.

McMaster called the Russian actions as described in the indictment a “sophisticated form of espionage.”

Trump rebuked him on Twitter, saying McMaster “forgot” to say that the results of the election weren’t changed by the Russian meddling -- something the indictment didn’t address -- and that the only collusion was between the Russians, Clinton and Democrats.

During his 30-minute call with Putin Trump didn’t mention such sensitive issues as the U.K. poisoning or ongoing concerns over Russian interference in U.S. elections. He conducted the conversation while alone in the White House residence, though some Trump aides were on the line. There has been some second-guessing in the White House that Trump was left without the proper staffing support at his side for this call.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, assailed Trump’s outreach to the Russian leader.

“An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” McCain said in a statement Tuesday. “And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election to determine their country’s future.”

Later, the Washington Post reported that written guidance for Trump had advised him not to congratulate Putin.

McMaster, an Army lieutenant general, had been the focus of recent speculation that he would soon leave as Trump reshaped his foreign policy team. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was said to be in consultations with Pentagon officials about finding a command that would have allowed McMaster to obtain a fourth star. In a statement released by the White House after his departure was announced, McMaster said he would retire from the military this summer.

Later Thursday night, after Trump announced his replacement, McMaster attended a dinner for visiting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Washington and received a standing ovation after former Florida Governor Jeb Bush pointed him out in the crowd from the stage.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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