White House leakers have new target: H. R. McMaster

National security adviser H.R. McMaster has become the latest target of the leaks and infighting that have dogged the Trump administration’s early days.

President Trump has tried to put an end to White House staffers placing palace intrigue stories, which peaked last month with a war of words between chief strategist Stephen Bannon and senior adviser Jared Kushner that played out in the press.

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Now, McMaster, a favorite of Washington’s GOP and foreign policy establishment, finds himself in the crosshairs of anonymous White House officials as the administration mulls ramping up the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

Those close to the White House describe the latest scuffle as another power struggle between rival spheres of influence. Foreign policy experts see the leaks as a reflection of a broader internal dispute over the appropriate level of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

Once again, Bannon is rumored to be at the center of it.

“Bannon is a core architect of ‘America first’ unilateralism and has no interest in continuing forever-wars that lack support among the base in the region,” said Ian Bremmer, the president of the international consulting firm Eurasia Group. 

“Afghanistan is pretty much the last U.S. intervention you’d want your name attached to. If Trump ends up going with the generals’ recommendation and increasing troops there, the America first-ers will want to make sure McMaster takes the fall when it — inevitably, in their view — goes badly.”

On Tuesday, anonymous White House officials opposed to the proposed Afghanistan offensive described the plan to The Washington Post as “McMaster’s War.”

A day earlier, Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake reported that Trump was boiling over with rage at McMaster and had berated him in front of White House staff.

According to that report, Trump has “privately expressed regret” for choosing McMaster to replace Michael Flynn, a fierce Trump loyalist who was fired after only 24 days on the job amid controversy over his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Bloomberg’s story was replete with the kinds of juicy details that have been the hallmark of tales of White House infighting.

Trump reportedly grew frustrated with McMaster for lecturing him on policy and not giving him a chance to ask questions at briefings.

The story said that Trump at one point “screamed” at McMaster on a phone call for assuring South Korean officials that the U.S. would foot the bill for a missile defense system, contradicting the president.

The White House is said to be cutting McMaster out of top-level meetings and has blocked some of his recent hiring efforts. Trump had a private meeting with former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton about bringing him in for a top spot on the National Security Council, purportedly as a means of checking McMaster’s power, according to Lake.

But the question banging around Washington in the wake of the Bloomberg story was whether the leaks represent reality or are just misdirection from White House officials known to plant embarrassing stories about their rivals in the media.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the thrust of the story was first reported by blogger and right-wing agitator Michael Cernovich, a Bannon supporter known for promoting conspiracy theories.

Pushing back on the story, the White House provided a statement to Bloomberg attributed directly to the president.

“I couldn’t be happier with H.R.,” Trump said. “He’s doing a terrific job.” 

And White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Tuesday that Trump has an “excellent” relationship with McMaster.

However, two people close to Bannon insist that Trump’s frustration with McMaster is real.

“Trump has serious issues with his national security adviser,” a GOP operative with close ties to the White House said.

Bannon was immediately eyed by many in the media as the likely source of negative stories about McMaster.

Trump’s combative chief strategist was removed from the National Security Council Principals Committee after McMaster replaced Flynn.

Bannon’s allies feel that McMaster is freezing them out of the foreign policy sphere, pointing to his elevation of Dina Powell to deputy national security adviser and the reassignment of K.T. McFarland, a former Fox News analyst who will reportedly leave her post as deputy national security adviser for an ambassadorship.

They also allege that McMaster was behind several unflattering news stories about Sebastian Gorka, a White House national security adviser.

Several news outlets reported last week that Gorka was about to be fired or moved elsewhere in the administration after failing to secure a permanent security clearance. However, as with many stories about impending White House personnel changes, nothing has come of it.

Foreign policy experts say the infighting is indicative of a broader disagreement within the White House between anti-interventionists, led by Bannon, and an ascendant wing of hawkish generals who spearheaded the surprise missile strike on Syria.

On this front, McMaster is at odds with Trump on at least one issue. 

He has reportedly expressed frustration with Trump’s use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” a phrase that has been the lynchpin of the administration’s war against political correctness and its tough rhetoric on combating terror.

And while Trump has given his generals and military advisers more autonomy, McMaster could have difficulty convincing the president to spring for more troops in Afghanistan.

Trump ran on an “America first” platform that is at odds with the U.S. becoming further embroiled in Afghanistan.

On this issue, Bannon, a favorite among Trump’s grassroots supporters, may have the advantage.

“I don’t think McMaster can survive fighting this out in the press,” said one former White House transition adviser. “He doesn’t represent a constituency the way Bannon does. McMaster represents the views of 1,000 people in Washington, D.C. There’s a shine to him now, but the minute he gets in the mud, he’ll be just as dirty as the rest of the pigs.”

By contrast, McMaster has the respect of foreign policy experts, who have been alarmed as the Afghanistan debate plays out through anonymous leaks in the press.

Dan Feldman, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Obama administration, said McMaster has done a fine job professionalizing the National Security Council and bringing about a “functioning and coordinated inter-agency decision-making process.”

“I would hope that after 16 years of U.S. engagement, thousands of Americans killed there, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent [in Afghanistan], that this isn’t minimized as -‘McMaster’s War,’ ” Feldman said.