Trump White House Infighting Reaches New Heights With McMaster-Bannon Spat

Tensions between Trump's national security adviser and chief strategist continue to rise, with last month's strike in Syria reportedly becoming a main issue between the two

U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and chief strategist Steve Bannon at the White House, April 12, 2017.
CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS

WASHINGTON - A new round of internal fighting is rocking the Trump White House, and this time it has to do with two of the president's most senior advisers: National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and chief strategist Stephen Bannon. Press reports in the last 48 hours have brought the tension between the two, which has existed for months, to new heights, and forced Donald Trump himself to address the issue.

On Monday morning, Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake published an explosive report that indicated that McMaster, who was appointed as national security adviser in late February, was losing some of his influence over the president. The report's headline stated – "Washington Loves General McMaster, but Trump Doesn't." Inside were details of recent confrontations between the president and the respected military general serving under him, including one instance in which Trump screamed at McMaster, and another in which he accused McMaster of undermining his policy.

The White House's response to Lake's report was a short quote attributed to Trump himself: "I couldn't be happier with H.R. He's doing a terrific job." This sentence was short of what was necessary in order to contain the story's damages to McMaster, which is a denial of the disturbing details contained in it. Twenty-four hours after the story was published, nothing even close to that has come out of the White House.

On Tuesday morning, however, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who is known to have a personal relationship with the president that at least back in January included a number of phone conversations per week, tweeted: "Several WH sources say the Gen McMaster stories are coming from Bannon and are false. Trump has full confidence in McMaster. 'He loves him.'"

In the background to this infighting are dramatic policy differences between McMaster, who joined the Trump administration as a result of General Mike Flynn's embarrassing resignation in February, and Bannon, who was personally close to Flynn and like him, played an important role in Trump's presidential campaign. Bannon's role prior to joining the Trump campaign last year was editor-in-chief of the far-right website Breitbart, and he is considered a "true believer" in the isolationist and extreme agenda that Trump presented during the election campaign.

McMaster, a career military officer with vast combat experience, comes not only from an opposite background, but also from a more moderate ideological school of thought. While Bannon's website became famous for promoting an anti-Muslim agenda, McMaster used to encourage his soldiers in Iraq to learn about Islam, study Arabic and have positive engagements with the local population. He reportedly also tried to persuade Trump to refrain from using the term "radical Islamic terrorism" in his public appearances, to no avail.

One of the first things that McMaster achieved after becoming national security adviser was to orchestrate Bannon's removal from the "principals committee" of the National Security Council, to which he was appointed in the very first days of the Trump administration, when his ally Flynn was still in the White House. McMaster also managed to get Flynn's former deputy K.T. McFarland, another Bannon ally, removed from the NSC – although according to the Bloomberg report, her departure has been delayed.

One of the main friction points between the two advisers, according to press reports, was the strike in Syria last month. McMaster has been credited for pushing Trump to go forward with the strike, which was the first American attack on the murderous Assad regime since the start of the Syrian civil war. Bannon was much less enthusiastic about it, and reminded Trump that he promised during the election campaign not to get dragged into new conflicts in the Middle East and to focus on defeating ISIS.

McMaster and Bannon's war over influence seems to come on top an earlier power struggle between Bannon and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser. The conflict between these two men became so fierce that Trump himself at some point publicly warned Bannon to stop fighting with Kushner, or else he will have to take action. "Steve is a good guy," Trump said, referring to Bannon, "but I told him to straighten it out or I will."

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about the recent reports at Tuesday's daily press briefing, and said that Trump's relationship with McMaster is "excellent." Spicer added that Trump is spending more time with McMaster than with anyone except his family.

The Kushner-Bannon fight also had implications on the National Security Council. Around the same time that Bannon was kicked out, a close and trusted adviser to Kushner's wife Ivanka was added: Dina Powell, a former Goldman Sachs executive and State Department official under the George W. Bush administration.

Powell has since participated in Trump's meetings with visiting Arab leaders and also accompanied Secretary of Defense James Mattis on his first trip to the Middle East. She shares McMaster's support for a nuanced and moderate line with regards to the Arab and Muslim world.

As of now, Powell is expected to join Trump on his first foreign trip in two weeks, which will include stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel. McMaster will also accompany the president. It's unclear if Bannon will as well.