The Moment McMaster 'Crossed His Own Lines': Covering for Trump in Israeli Intel Leak Affair

New Yorker feature details McMaster's brief term as national security adviser and reactions when he defended the U.S. president for passing Israeli intelligence to the Russians in May 2017

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Then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster speaking to reporters in the White House, May 16, 2017.
Then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster speaking to reporters in the White House, May 16, 2017.Credit: Joshua Roberts/ REUTERS

Former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster's decision to defend U.S. President Donald Trump after he disclosed Israeli intel to the Russians last May was the moment he sold his soul, a New Yorker article claims this week.

McMaster served as Trump's security adviser for over a year before being replaced by John Bolton in March. It has been well documented that the two men never bonded, with CNN reporting that Trump called the lieutenant general's briefings "gruff and condescending." He also labeled him "boring." McMaster was only offered the post after Robert Harward turned it down, reportedly calling it a "shit sandwich."

In "McMaster and Commander," Patrick Radden Keefe reveals the shocked reactions to McMaster's decision to defend Trump over his handling of the leaked Israeli intel in May 2017.

McMaster is a decorated career army officer, nicknamed the "the Iconoclast General" and is the author of a book called "Dereliction of Duty." In that book McMaster "described a dangerous phenomenon in which military men became “shields,” insulating political leaders from criticism by lending an aura of unimpeachability to their decisions—even reckless ones."

Keefe also writes: "On May 10, 2017, the day after Trump dismissed the FBI director, James Comey, he welcomed the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, to the Oval Office. McMaster attended the meeting. ... Several days later, the Washington Post revealed that Trump had casually disclosed to the Russian officials top-secret intelligence from a U.S. ally about an ISIS terrorist threat – a plot to blow up airplanes by sneaking onboard laptop computers embedded with explosives. Although Trump did not reveal the source of his information, he did mention where the ally had learned of the threat: a Syrian city within the territory held by ISIS. This clue likely allowed the Russians to determine that the intelligence had come from Israel."

After the Washington Post reported on Trump's mistake, the White House rushed to deny that the president had divulged such information – even though Trump himself acknowledged on Twitter that he had indeed shared the intel.

Keefe describes McMaster's subsequent press conference, where he rejected the Washington Post story as false, "although he did not explain what was inaccurate about it, and he glossed over Trump’s disclosure of classified information to a hostile adversary, focusing instead on the fact that the president did not appear to have jeopardized 'sources and methods.'

"McMaster seemed sincerely exasperated with the press," Keefe writes. "'It is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people,' he said. His remarks were brief but aggressive; he managed to use the phrase 'wholly appropriate' nine times."

The article quotes Paul Yingling, who served alongside McMaster in the U.S. Army in Iraq, as saying he was "sickened" by his former colleague's actions. “It is never OK for an officer to lie, period,” Yingling told Keefe. “If you want to get into politics and shade the truth, great," he added. "But take off the uniform. The problem is when you mix categories: When you ask for the presumption of honor that goes with being an officer and then you mislead the public.”

Yingling criticizes McMaster's loyalty to the president, saying he should have quit rather than cover for Trump. "You don’t make instrumental calculations about questions of honor,” he told The New Yorker. “Some of these senior military officers in the Trump administration forget that the Constitution they swore to defend includes the 25th Amendment. If they believe that the president is unfit, then their job is not to work behind the scenes to mitigate, or paper over, his infirmities. It’s their duty to resign – and go public about why they’re doing it.”

The article also speaks to friends of McMaster, who defend his actions at the press conference.

“We all looked at that and said, ‘OK, man, you’re trying real hard,’” Keefe quotes former Pentagon official Janine Davidson as saying. She also defends McMaster's time working with Trump, noting, “How many times a week, or a month, does he manage to talk the president out of something? Probably a lot.”

H.R. McMaster shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump after being appointed national security adviser in February 2017.Credit: Kevin Lamarque/ REUTERS

Another friend, John Nagl, told Keefe: “On H.R.’s shoulders may be decisions that preserve the world from the threat of thermonuclear war, and there’s literally nobody else who I would rather have in that position. If that means he has to say some things that are not completely true, I’m OK with that.”

Keefe observes, "In this telling, McMaster was a martyr – a man who loved America so much that he was prepared to sacrifice his own reputation in order to save it."

The article also reveals McMaster's frustrations with Jared Kushner's leading role in the Trump administration. Keefe quotes McMaster as saying, "You mean I’ve got somebody running a significant part of foreign policy who doesn’t report into my structure?”

Keefe adds that McMaster’s colleagues told him, “This is the way the president wants it, and it’s just going to happen” – so "McMaster let the matter go," writes Keefe.

Keefe also details McMaster's battles with Trump's former strategist, Steve Bannon. "Bannon and McMaster openly clashed over Afghanistan, and in at least one instance McMaster lost his temper, reportedly shouting, 'You’re a liar!'" Keefe writes.

"Bannon loathed McMaster, deriding him as a 'globalist' who was all too eager to commit troops to foreign conflicts in which America had little strategic interest," Keefe continues. "He pushed for a withdrawal of troops. McMaster told his staff that anyone who briefed Trump about Afghanistan should be prepared for his first question: 'What are we still doing there?' He presented Trump with photographs of Kabul from the 1970s, when it was a more peaceful, stable city. The message, tailored to Trump’s preference for images, was implicit: Afghanistan is not hopeless. Things can change. Trump ultimately sided with McMaster."

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