PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Donald Trump’s selection Monday of a cerebral, widely respected military strategist as his new national security adviser signaled an abrupt about-face from the chaotic tenure of Michael T. Flynn, forced out last week just shy of a month on the job.
The choice of Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, 54, who has a reputation for battlefield acumen as well as scholarly achievement, won quick bipartisan plaudits from key lawmakers charged with oversight of national security and intelligence — a boon for a White House still seeking its footing after first-month missteps.
Trump infused his choice of Flynn’s replacement with some of his trademark showmanship, summoning his four finalists for interviews over the weekend before the announcement of McMaster at his Mar-a-Largo resort here. The president then brought the cameras into an ornate sitting room to introduce McMaster, seated beside him in uniform, as “a man of tremendous talent and experience.”
“He is highly respected by everyone in the military, and we’re very honored to have him,” Trump added.
McMaster has deep combat experience — he commanded forces in both Iraq wars and fought in an iconic tank confrontation in the first Iraq war known as the Battle of 73 Easting — but lacks the intelligence background Flynn had.
Whether that matters remains to be seen. Temperamentally, McMaster is far from the volatile Flynn, who had raised alarm in many quarters over his conspiratorial outlook, his hotly anti-Islamic worldview and his murky ties to Russia.
Associates of the new security adviser, whose appointment will not require congressional confirmation, have described him as tough and detail-oriented, with a wide-ranging intellect grounded in hard-won realism. He also has no immediately apparent connections to Russia, notable amid increasing calls in Washington for a congressional investigation into possible ties between Moscow and Trump’s associates.
“It is not an overstatement to say that Americans and the world should feel a little safer today,” tweeted Andrew Exum, an author and academic who saw combat in Afghanistan and writes widely about military affairs.
But McMaster, who will remain on active duty, as previous national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell did, will inherit a position already riddled with potential pitfalls.
Those include the ascension of White House strategist Steve Bannon to a permanent seat on the National Security Council — a sharp departure from previous White Houses that sought to shield the most sensitive security decision-making from political influence.
McMaster’s greatest strengths could put him at loggerheads with Bannon and other powerful figures in the president’s camp.
He is perhaps best known for astute analysis underscoring the need to push back against power structures in both the military and the civilian leadership. McMaster turned his doctoral dissertation into a much-lauded book, “Dereliction of Duty,” which detailed the failings of senior presidential aides as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War.
That willingness to buck conventional wisdom carried over into his battlefield days in Iraq, where his thinking helped underpin the counterterrorism strategy of Gen. David Petraeus, widely credited with changing the course of that war. Until the weekend, Petraeus was himself thought to be under consideration for the national security post, but his chances had been clouded by his forced resignation as CIA chief under cloud of an extramarital affair and classified information shared with his lover.
Monday’s seemingly smooth rollout stood in sharp contrast to the tumult surrounding Flynn’s resignation a week earlier, which came at Trump’s behest after it became publicly known that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other senior administration officials about discussing U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador to Washington.
Trump’s first choice to succeed him, retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward, turned down the job amid reports he had been unable to secure a pledge he would be able to pick his own staff. The insisted-on retention of deputy K.T. McFarland, a former Fox News commentator, was reportedly a deal-breaker for Harward, who publicly cited family and financial concerns in declining the position.
The White House emphasized the autonomy being given to McMaster.
“The president gave full authority for McMaster to hire whatever staff he sees fit,” a White House spokeswoman told reporters.
It is highly unusual for even a retired senior military officer like Harward to resist the call of the commander-in-chief to such a crucial position. For an active-duty officer like McMaster, there was little question of him stepping up.
At Mar-a-Largo, McMaster said it would be a “privilege” to serve.
Praise for Trump’s pick came from both sides of the political aisle. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking member of the House intelligence committee, said on Twitter that McMaster was a solid choice, bright and strategic-minded.
“Wrote the book on importance of standing up” to the president, Schiff tweeted. “May need to show same independence here.”
Even some of Trump’s sharpest critics on the Republican side were effusive. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who in recent days had expressed some highly public misgivings about the administration’s foreign policy direction and fundamental values, called McMaster an “outstanding choice” and “a man of genuine intellect, character and ability.”
“He knows how to succeed,” McCain said in a statement. “I give President Trump great credit for this decision.”
Another Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, who chairs the House intelligence committee, pointed to McMaster’s “history of questioning the status quo and infusing fresh thinking and new approaches into military affairs.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a veteran of the Iraq war, also hailed the selection, calling McMaster “one of the finest combat leaders of our generation ... a true warrior-scholar.”
Somewhat tellingly, Trump only answered one of the multiple questions reporters asked at the announcement: whether Pence had helped select McMaster.
“He did,” the president said.
Trump and Pence spoke earlier Monday by phone, as the vice president wrapped up a trip to Europe in which he worked to reassure nervous allies about the U.S. commitment to NATO.
Pence publicly addressed Flynn’s misleading reassurances to him for the first time Monday, in Brussels — though without touching on the more explosive question of whether he felt left out of the loop after others in the White House learned weeks earlier that Flynn’s account did not square with intelligence intercepts of the calls.
“I was disappointed to learn that the facts that had been conveyed to me by Gen. Flynn were inaccurate,” Pence said, adding that he had fully supported Trump’s decision to push out Flynn.
Retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who had been a contender for the job but considered unlikely to win out, was to stay on as McMaster’s chief of staff, Trump said. Another contender for the national security adviser’s job, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, was invited to play an unspecified role in the administration.