As the election nears, a parade of ex-administration officials and political advisers has come forward to denounce President Donald Trump and offer firsthand accounts of incompetence and venality running through his government.
One notable exception has been H. R. McMaster. The retired Army general served as Trump’s second national security adviser, leaving in early 2018 after about a year in the job. McMaster was part of a coterie of high-level advisers who met often with Trump, explaining global threats and laying out options for him to consider. He presumably knows plenty about the character of the 45th president and whether he’s fit to lead the free world. On that score, McMaster has typically kept mum. Writing a review in The Washington Post about McMaster’s recent book, Battlegrounds, Ben Rhodes, a former deputy NSA in the Obama administration, concluded: “In it, we learn almost nothing about his interactions with Trump or his personal opinion of the man.”
But although that might be how McMaster wants it, it’s not an easy position to hold. With other Trump alumni taking clear sides, pressure increases on those who haven’t. And with Trump failing to clearly condemn white supremacists at Tuesday’s debate, maintaining silence might grow more untenable.
Though McMaster isn’t likely to be the next James Mattis, who denounced Trump in a lengthy statement earlier this year, he’s not entirely neutral, either. He has clear opinions. As he told me yesterday, he believes Trump needs to speak out more directly about the evils of white supremacy. He worries that the president’s comments might leave such groups feeling emboldened. Though he’s not given to alarm or blame, he casts Trump as something of a destabilizing force in our politics.
Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Peter Nicholas: At the debate, Trump was asked to condemn white-nationalist groups. He said, of the Proud Boys—a far-right group of “Western chauvinists”—that they should “stand back, and stand by.” Is that an adequate response?
H. R. McMaster: No, it’s not. No leader should encourage any group that is based on a narrow identity that aims to supersede our identity as Americans. We have these centripetal forces in our society today, created by this interaction of identity politics with racism and bigotry. We need leaders who can bring us back together and generate confidence in our identity as Americans and as human beings.
Nicholas: Do white-supremacist groups pose a national-security threat to the United States, and should the president condemn them more clearly and directly than he has to date?
McMaster: Yes and yes. To use a sports analogy, condemning white supremacists should be a layup for any leader. What we’re undervaluing these days is the importance of bringing Americans back together to reinforce our common identity. As a military officer, it breaks my heart to see divisions, because what you see is people come into the Army from all different walks of life. They carry with them certain prejudices and predilections. But you see that all melt away when they’re part of the team.
Nicholas: Why would Trump not seize the chance to denounce white supremacists?
McMaster: I don’t know. It’s certainly a missed opportunity, but it also gives space to these groups that foment hatred and intolerance. And whenever you have a group at one end of the spectrum who define themselves in a particular way, you tend to get an equal and opposite reaction on the other end of the spectrum. Those of us who have more of a common identity as Americans and don’t judge people by race, color, creed, or sexual orientation—but have faith in our identity as Americans and in humanity—we tend to get drowned out by those on the extreme. Our leaders should give voice to those of us who reject extremists and intolerance.
Nicholas: Trump made repeated interruptions throughout the debate. Is that a good look for our country?
McMaster: It’s not. This was a poor example of democracy internationally, but also within our own country.
Nicholas: Do you blame one candidate more than the other for the tone of the debate?
McMaster: These days, both reflect and magnify divisions in our society. I don’t think Donald Trump invented these divisions. But he certainly doesn’t do as much as he could to lessen those divisions and bring us back together. Oftentimes, we focus on the president’s bombastic or offensive rhetoric. The reaction to that rhetoric oftentimes is just as bad and pulls us apart from each other as well.
All of us face a choice at this moment. Do we get dragged down into this, even if we don’t want to, and then become part of the problem? Or do we try to transcend it? We have to try to transcend the partisan politics, transcend the candidates. If there’s hope for us, which I believe there is, the solution is not going to be apparent in this presidential campaign. We’re going to have to do more work ourselves to come together as a people and demand better in all of our government—including the presidential candidates.
Nicholas: Will democracy survive this election? Do you worry that if Trump refuses to concede in the event of a defeat, that could be a danger to our democracy?
McMaster: I don’t. Our Founders wrote the Constitution with every crisis they could imagine in mind. I have confidence in that system. It’s going to work.
Nicholas: Could the military get drawn into a post–Election Day dispute that arises?
McMaster: No. The military will have no role. Even any talk about the military having a role in the transition should be unconscionable. [The Constitution’s authors] feared any military role that would undercut this radical [American] idea that sovereignty lies with the people. Not with the king or parliament, but with the people. The only time you could say [that principle has] been violated on a large scale is the Civil War, when military officers essentially became traitors to preserve slavery. And so we have to make sure we don’t even have discussions about this.
The responsibility for maintaining the military’s studiously apolitical status and civilian control is on the profession of arms. But it’s also incumbent on politicians to keep the military out of it.
Nicholas: On a different subject: Is the president’s “America First” strategy driving away friends and allies? Do you worry that he might pull out of NATO if he’s reelected?
McMaster: The president undervalues—and many Americans do as well—the less tangible benefits of our allies, and in particular the influence the United States enjoys because of our ability to work with like-minded partners bound together not just by mutual interests, but by democratic principles that we hold dear.
I think our allies give us a great deal of moral authority—and they lessen the burden of defense. They also make us more prosperous. They help us establish and maintain an economic order internationally that is conducive to fair and reciprocal trade and commerce. It’s actually good when the president challenges our European allies to contribute more to collective defense. They have pledged to share that burden, and some countries are not living up to it.
The president doesn’t do it very tactfully, and that’s what alienates some of our allies and leads to popular doubts within those countries about the reliability of the U.S. as an ally.
I don’t [worry that Trump will abandon NATO if reelected]. There would be such an overwhelming response from those who are familiar with the benefits of the alliance.