McMaster spoke for less than a minute, didn’t take questions, and didn’t really deny the substance of the Post’s story, instead saying that the president had not divulged sources and methods to the Russians—an allegation not made in the story. McMaster said the story “as reported is false.”
On Tuesday morning, Trump himself tweeted a tacit confirmation of the Post’s scoop, saying he had the “absolute right” as president to share the information with Russia.
Later that same morning, McMaster shouldered the bulk of the work explaining the story to reporters in a high-stakes briefing, in which he hewed to the administration’s line that the real problem is those who leak to the press, said Trump’s conversation with the Russians was “wholly appropriate,” and ended by acknowledging that Trump didn’t even know the source of the intelligence.
“Nothing in General McMaster’s statement or press briefing contradicted in any way what the president said,” said National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton. “General McMaster accurately characterized the content of the president’s conversation with the Russian foreign minister based on the clear recollection of four people who were in the meeting and all of whom spoke on the record.”
McMaster was being a good soldier, said someone who knows him well who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“It does fit into his sense of duty,” this person said. Of the situation McMaster’s been put in: “I’m not surprised. I expected something like this and I don’t think it’ll be the last time.”
The episode recalled the White House’s deployment of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein as cover for its firing of Comey—a scheme that has damaged the reputation of Rosenstein, who reportedly complained about the way the firing had been portrayed and even threatened to quit.
It’s the experienced professionals like Rosenstein who are staking their own credibility on Trump as his presidency spirals out of control. McMaster’s moment in front of the cameras came even before the latest bombshell, a New York Times report that Trump had asked Comey to shut down the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
“For those of us who like and admire HR, and I count myself among those, what’s hard to watch is someone who, starting from when he wrote his doctoral dissertation on military truth to power, having developed a reputation as a kind of truth teller and someone with a lot of integrity and great honesty, being put in the position of having to parse words and be disingenuous,” Edelman said.
What makes McMaster’s situation even more striking is that his book on the Vietnam War criticizes generals for not standing up to the administration.
“I think he is carrying a particularly heavy load because of his reputation,” said Eliot Cohen, a former Bush Administration State Department official and Atlantic contributing editor who knows McMaster, but is not in touch with him. “He knows that, I’m sure. He’s also carrying a heavy load—this is me, not him speaking —because of the man he’s working for.”