McMaster shows clout in Trump's first crisis

President Trump launched the first major military strike of his presidency after heavy consultation with his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. 

The cruise missile attack on Syria capped off a week in which McMaster appeared to consolidate his power by ousting chief White House counselor Stephen Bannon from the National Security Council, though the balance of power inside the Trump administration remains fluid.

The Army lieutenant general showed a steady hand turning Trump's rhetoric Syria into action, something the president’s team has struggled to accomplish on other fronts. 

McMaster appeared to run a professional decision-making process, drawing praise even as the strike and its consequences are being hotly debated in Washington. 

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The top security aide gave reporters an unusually candid account Thursday night of how Trump decided on the strike. The National Security Council met the previous day and discussed three options with the president, McMaster said. Trump then asked his team to focus on two options, peppering them with questions about the varying approaches. 

After they answered Trump’s concerns, the president held a briefing with his team Thursday afternoon where they decided to go ahead with the cruise missile strike.

“This was a very deliberative process,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who participated in the final meeting. “There was a thorough examination of a wide range of options, and I think the president made the correct choice and made the correct decision.”

McMaster, along with Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, also briefed key lawmakers as the missiles landed. 

The Syria attack was McMaster’s first time in the spotlight since Trump picked him for the national security role in late February. 

His ascension has pleased Republican security hawks, who were concerned with the direction of Trump’s foreign policy under his former national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. 

“Encouraging: The national security decision-making process--agencies coordinated, secrecy kept, action explained--seems to be working,” tweeted Bill Kristol, the founder of the conservative Weekly Standard and vocal Trump critic.

The National Security Council was created after World War II as the main forum for agencies to debate pressing military and diplomatic matters and make policy recommendations to the president.

But the Trump White House had taken a more freewheeling approach, relying on a close team of advisers outside the council for guidance.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law who has no prior government experience, has taken on a broad international portfolio that includes relations with China and Mexico, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the conflict in Iraq.  

In another unusual step, Trump signed an order in late January naming Bannon to the NSC’s principals committee, which is the last place decisions are made before bringing issues to the president.  

The elevation of Trump’s chief political strategist to a body that decides matters of war drew condemnation across the political spectrum. The president reportedly complained he wasn’t properly briefed on the order. 

McMaster undid that order this week, removing Bannon from the principals committee and bringing other officials, such as the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, back on board.

“The NSC is not really where political advisers should be,” said Christine Wormuth, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy after a stint on the NSC during the Obama administration. “Moving him off the council, I think, is very appropriate.” 

The changes, Wormuth said, could “normalize the role of the NSC and have it be the primary venue where decisions take place and recommendations to the president are formulated.”

But national security experts question whether McMaster can keep his newfound traction within the White House amid the constant turmoil in the West Wing.

McMaster reportedly tried to fire Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the NSC’s senior director for intelligence programs who was brought onto the council by Flynn. But he survived after Bannon and Kushner intervened.

The incident raised doubts about whether McMaster truly has the broad staffing authority Trump granted him when he was hired.

Deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland has reportedly been offered the post of ambassador to Singapore to make way for Dina Powell, an ally of Kushner. But McFarland has thus far remained in her current role.

While rumors about Bannon’s job security have reached a fever pitch since his removal from the NSC, the White House denies that the move represented a demotion.

Bannon attended an NSC meeting Wednesday and was photographed with roughly a dozen senior aides in the makeshift Situation Room at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate Thursday after the Syria strike, albeit seated behind the table.

“As long as Bannon is in the White House and sees the president, his influence on national security matters is not really compromised,” said Richard Betts of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Experts say McMaster is modeling his leadership after Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush who acted as an “honest broker” of proposals offered by Cabinet and agency heads rather than pushing his own ideas. 

If he can use that low-profile approach to make credible recommendations to Trump in the coming weeks and month, those experts say McMaster could earn the president’s trust.

“Not having that close personal relationship, he’ll have to show that his stewardship will produce options and proposals that are sound, have the support of the interagency and are seen by the president as improving the United States,” said Ned Price, an NSC spokesperson and senior director under Obama. 

McMaster will participate in his first national television interview this weekend on "Fox News Sunday."