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? And what post would he fill?
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.
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."