New national security adviser pick marks big change on Russia

President Trump's replacement for former national security adviser Michael Flynn represents a stark new direction, both in policy and approach.

Where Flynn was widely seen as a Trump loyalist whose extreme views mirrored the president’s own, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster has a reputation for speaking his mind to superiors — and has publicly staked out positions that are in direct conflict not only with Flynn, but with Trump himself.

Widely thought to be one of the Army’s premier thinkers — he’s been called a “warrior scholar” — McMaster made the threat posed by Russia a central focus in his most recent role as the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center. He has publicly warned lawmakers about the threat posed by Moscow.

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McMaster has been cautious not to conflate the religion of Islam with jihadist terrorism. In a 2016 speech at the Virginia Military Institute, he accused the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) of “[using] a perverted interpretation of religion.” 

Flynn, by contrast, argued in his 2016 book that the U.S. is in a “world war” with radical Islam and has long been shadowed by suspicion that he’s too close to Russia.

In 2015, the retired lieutenant general gave a paid speech in Moscow at an event where he was seated with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Last week, Flynn was forced to resign after it was revealed that he misled Vice President Pence about the content of a pre-inauguration phone call he had with the Russian ambassador. 

Where Flynn was known as a firebrand ideologue, McMaster is considered an intellectual and a strategist who is willing to challenge conventional wisdom.

“[McMaster is] a combat commander. Flynn was a military intelligence officer and primarily a staff officer — those are two different personality types,” said retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, who has known McMaster for years. “I don’t know if I would go as far as to call him the anti-Flynn, but they’re very different guys.”

The selection of McMaster, along with a handful of public statements made by other high-ranking administration officials over the weekend, could give ammunition to Trump supporters who say fears that the president will suppress intelligence that doesn’t fit his worldview are overblown.

The president has been engaged for months in a public feud with the intelligence community that has its roots in a multi-agency assessment that Russia attempted to interfere in the U.S. presidential election on Trump’s behalf — analysis that the president has begrudgingly and only partially acknowledged.

Critics have feared that Trump would allow political loyalists like chief strategist Steve Bannon to operate a kind of “shadow council” that would make pivotal national security decisions. The former Breitbart News executive was recently named a member of the National Security Council principals committee, seemingly confirming the concerns of those who worried that Bannon would be influential on national security.

Still, McMaster was not the president’s first choice for the position — or even his second. Retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward rejected Trump’s offer to fill the spot left vacant by Flynn’s resignation.

McMaster reportedly was not even on the president’s radar until Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Grassley offers DACA fix tied to tough enforcement measures Five things senators should ask Tom Cotton if he’s nominated to lead the CIA MORE (R-Ark.) suggested him after Flynn’s resignation.

Questions continue to swirl about the degree of autonomy and influence he will wield in the White House. 

The same views that have earned him praise from outside the administration could lead McMaster to disputes with the president, particularly on the issue of Russia. Trump has repeatedly called for warmer relations with the Kremlin.

“Ultimately, the president's always been the decider, whether it's Russia or any other issue,” press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday. 

McMaster has a reputation for standing up to his superiors — even when it means damaging his career. He was twice passed over for promotion to the rank of brigadier general in the mid-2000s, reportedly thanks to his willingness to ruffle feathers in pursuit of his ultimately successful 2005 counterinsurgency campaign that took back the northern Iraq town of Tal Afar.

It wasn’t until former Gen. David Petraeus rallied support for McMaster that the star was pinned.

“Knowing his personality well, he’s not going to have any problem going into the president and telling him things that he may not be aware of, things that he might not agree with, things that he may think are problematic from the president’s worldview,” Barno said. “H.R. will bring that into the room.” 

In fact, a number of high-ranking Trump officials over the weekend gave public statements that directly contradicted the president on key foreign policy issues, suggesting that Trump may defer to more experienced officials on matters of foreign policy.  

Defense Secretary James Mattis said in Brussels Thursday that the U.S. is “not in a position” to collaborate militarily with Russia — despite calls from the president for the U.S. and Moscow to team up in the fight against ISIS.

Both Pence and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have in recent days insisted that the U.S. is fully committed to NATO, after Trump publicly argued that the alliance was “obsolete.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also took a harder line with Moscow than his boss, insisting after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Russia must honor its commitments to “de-escalate the violence in Ukraine.” 

McMaster literally wrote the book on speaking truth to power. His 1997 book, “Dereliction of Duty,” — based on his Ph.D. thesis at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and published while he was still on active duty — blamed the tragedy of Vietnam on military brass who caved to political pressure.

McMaster criticized President Lyndon B. Johnson’s security council meetings as “pro forma affairs in which the president endeavored to build consensus for decisions already made,” condemning “the president’s unwillingness to entertain divergent views on the subject of Vietnam.” 

“He wanted advisors who would tell him what he wanted to hear,” McMaster wrote.

The appointment of McMaster drew instant praise from across the ideological spectrum, especially from jumpy Russia hawks on Capitol Hill. Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (R-Ariz.), who has been an outspoken critic of Trump’s national security apparatus, called McMaster an “outstanding” choice. 

“I give President Trump great credit for this decision, as well as his national security cabinet choices,” he said in a statement. 

“McMaster is solid choice, bright & strategic,” the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father Erik Prince says meeting with Russian banker unrelated to Trump campaign MORE (Calif.), tweeted Monday. “Wrote the book on importance of standing up to POTUS. May need to show same independence here.”

As an active-duty general, McMaster will require Senate confirmation to retain his three-star rank as he becomes national security adviser.