President Donald Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster isn’t getting fired, he’s getting Tillersoned – kept in a state of perpetual limbo about his future in the administration, aware that his unpredictable boss could keep him around indefinitely or terminate him at a moment’s notice.
Like now-former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, whom the president dismissed earlier this week, McMaster has never clicked with the president, who prizes personal chemistry and likes to shoot the breeze. And as with the secretary of state, the president decided months ago amid disagreements over his Afghanistan strategy that McMaster wouldn’t be a permanent fixture in his administration.
What’s changed in recent days, according to a half-dozen White House aides and outside advisers familiar with the situation, is that White House chief-of-staff John Kelly has put increasing pressure on Trump to get rid of McMaster – and that’s made the president, who often likes to be contrary and doesn’t mind frustrating his advisers, increasingly resistant to making a change.
Kelly, a former Marine general, has clashed with McMaster and began pushing in November to oust the national security adviser, an active-duty Army officer who came into the West Wing after the ouster of Michael Flynn in February 2017. Kelly has been closely aligned with Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who he considered a source of stability in the administration.
Kelly was upset, according to two senior administration officials, by Trump’s decision to remove Tillerson this week, and has in turn resumed his efforts to sour Trump on McMaster.
But McMaster’s situation differs from Tillerson’s in three crucial ways, according to people familiar with the situation. Though McMaster grinds the president’s gears on a personal level, Trump continues to believe the national security adviser is working to implement his agenda – a view he did not have of Tillerson, who he often felt was undermining him on the world stage, according to two senior administration officials familiar with his thinking.
Time is also on his side. Trump and Kelly have struggled to figure out how to contend with the bad optics ofcycling through two national security advisers in less than two years, particularly in the midst of so much staff turnover elsewhere in the administration.
The two have also had difficulty agreeing on a replacement. Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton remains a Trump favorite, and met with the president in the Oval Office last week. But Bolton confidants say he has grown tired of being asked whether he will replace McMaster and insists privately he has had no formal talks with Trump about the matter.
McMaster is not the only Trump adviser whose fate is uncertain: rather, uncertainty is one of the only certainties in the Trump administration, where the boss’ views are constantly changing, shaped not only by cable news coverage that streams around the clock from dozens of televisions throughout the West Wing, but also by the opinions of a dozen or so Trump friends and advisers who are regularly pinged for advice.
Trump’s White House has already seen an unprecedented degree of senior-level turnover in the West Wing. He has so far churned through a chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, chief strategist, staff secretary, press secretary, and multiple communications directors.
“There will always be change, and I think you want to see change,” Trump said on Thursday when asked about impending shake-ups.
But the president signed off on White House press secretary Sarah Sanders’ tweet Thursday night in the wake of a Washington Post story indicating he had decided to fire McMaster: “Just spoke to @POTUS and Gen. H.R. McMaster,” she said. “Contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC.”
White House aides say McMaster is likely to be awarded a fourth star and return to the Army in the coming months, though it’s unclear when exactly that will happen.
Along with McMaster, reports in recent days have also suggested Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are in danger of being ousted.
One senior administration official said there is unlikely to be a widespread, simultaneous purge of senior appointees.
“I don’t think there will be a day you wake up where three or four people are out at the cabinet level,” the official said, predicting a somewhat more orderly process for any impending cabinet shakeup.
There is some acknowledgement within the West Wing that the situation is untenable, with officials unsure on who to turn to for even basic tasks and unsure of their own status on constantly-shifting ground.
“It needs to be resolved,” said the senior administration official. “We’re in a holding pattern right now that cannot continue.”