(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT) —- President Trump defended Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, his embattled national security adviser, on Friday in the face of a full-bore campaign by the nationalist wing of his political coalition accusing him of undermining the president’s agenda and calling for his dismissal.
General McMaster has angered the political right by pushing out several conservatives on the national security staff and cautioning against ripping up the nuclear agreement with Iran negotiated by President Barack Obama without a strategy for what comes next. His future has been in doubt amid speculation that Mr. Trump might send him to Afghanistan.
But after two days of unrelenting attacks on General McMaster by conservative activists and news sites, complete with the Twitter hashtag #FireMcMaster, the president weighed in to quash such talk. “General McMaster and I are working very well together,” he said in a statement emailed to The New York Times. “He is a good man and very pro–Israel. I am grateful for the work he continues to do serving our country.”
A senior White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the president’s views, added that Mr. Trump has “total confidence” in his national security adviser.
The president’s intervention came at a time when his White House has been racked by turmoil and turnover. The abrupt departures of his chief of staff, press secretary and communications director, coupled with Mr. Trump’s own criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have left the president’s team deeply unsettled.
But the president seemed intent on calming the waters, at least momentarily. That does not mean General McMaster’s job is secure in the long run, but White House officials said no one should expect him to leave anytime soon, especially now that his position has been fortified by the arrival of John F. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general who took over as chief of staff.
Mr. Trump and General McMaster have been something of an odd couple since the president tapped him in February after pushing out Michael T. Flynn, his first national security adviser, for not being forthright about a conversation with Russia’s ambassador. Mr. Trump did not know General McMaster before interviewing him and they have not always had good chemistry, according to White House officials. General McMaster is a serious, somber briefer who prefers an orderly process and does not respond particularly well to Mr. Trump’s looser style.
Some advisers to Mr. Trump had floated a scenario in which Mr. Trump might assign General McMaster to take over as commander in Afghanistan, presumably giving him a fourth star and replacing him with Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director. Speculation was fueled by an NBC News report that Mr. Trump last month broached firing Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the current commander in Afghanistan.
But White House officials said it was just a thought expressed out loud and the president backed off after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended General Nicholson. The two agreed that the United States is losing the low-grade war in Afghanistan but said the fault was the poor strategy they inherited, not the commander in the field.
Politico Magazine reported that a frustrated Mr. Trump, torn between desire to win and skepticism about continued American military involvement in Afghanistan, rejected a new strategy proposed by General McMaster. General McMaster will probably meet with Mr. Trump during a vacation that began in Bedminster, N.J., on Friday to talk about Afghanistan.
Conservatives have been dubious about General McMaster since the start, but opened up a concerted assault on him this week after he pushed out Ezra Cohen-Watnick, his senior director for intelligence, the latest of at least four hard-liners to leave the National Security Council staff in recent weeks.
They seized on a conservative website’s report that General McMaster had renewed the security clearance of Mr. Obama’s last national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, amid questions about her handling of intelligence eavesdropping on Russians that overheard Trump associates. And they blamed him when The Washington Post obtained leaked transcripts of phone conversations between Mr. Trump and the leaders of Mexico and Australia.
“General McMaster has to be fired because he is the captain of the ship and he has allowed that ship to get out of control and he can no longer be trusted with that responsibility,” Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, an advocacy group, said in an interview.
Frank Gaffney Jr., president of the Center for Security Policy, another group on the conservative right, said on a radio program on Friday that General McMaster was “insubordinate to his commander in chief” on matters including Syria and Islamic radicalism.
The ferocity of the attacks coming from the faction of the party allied with Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, had General McMaster’s associates convinced that it was no coincidence. At one point on Friday, Breitbart News, formerly run by Mr. Bannon, had close to a dozen headlines on its home page about General McMaster, like “McMaster ‘Deeply Hostile to Israel and to Trump.’”
The #FireMcMaster hashtag was tweeted more than 50,000 times since Wednesday. Echoing the drumbeat were social media organs tied to the Russian government. According to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan group created to focus attention on Russian interference in the West, the top hashtag among 600 Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations at one point on Thursday was #FireMcMaster.
White House officials defended General McMaster, saying that he has faithfully reflected the president’s views, not tried to impose his own. They noted that he was heavily involved in drafting a speech Mr. Trump gave in Warsaw describing Western civilization as at risk, an address applauded by nationalist supporters.
“General McMaster is a true public servant and a tremendous asset for the president and the administration,” Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, said in an email. “He has created and oversees a very thorough and clear process for the agencies to work together to give the president credible options to advance the president’s priorities for America’s foreign policy.”
Mr. Kushner’s defense was important because he had protected Mr. Cohen-Watnick for months. But White House officials said Mr. Kushner acquiesced to the general’s decision to remove him several weeks ago.
As for Ms. Rice’s security clearance, General McMaster’s allies noted that he renewed such clearances for all former national security advisers and former presidents months ago. And they rejected the notion that he bore responsibility for the leak of transcripts of two conversations that occurred in January before he even took over the job.
“H. R. McMaster is just as concerned about the leak of classified documents and information as Mike Flynn was,” said Michael Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
The campaign against General McMaster from the right comes even as some of his friends in the foreign policy establishment have expressed disappointment in the policies he has pursued in the White House. They initially hoped he would steer Mr. Trump in a more mainstream direction and have been unhappy that he has publicly defended the president’s “America First” approach.
Eliot A. Cohen, a former State Department counselor under President George W. Bush and a staunch critic of Mr. Trump, used words like “terrific” and “thoughtful” to describe General McMaster. “He’s infinitely better than Michael Flynn; he’s infinitely better than some of the crazies that you could have,” Mr. Cohen said. “But I believe he’s just going to have very limited success because of Trump.”