One of the most damaged individuals from the various controversies surrounding President Donald Trump has been his National Security Adviser, General H.R. McMaster. McMaster of course replaced the most damaged individual, General Michael Flynn who is now the subject of multiple investigations. McMaster was brought in to bring professional and credibility to the position. He was an excellent choice. However, the use of McMaster to try (unsuccessfully) to deflect concerns of Trump’s disclosure of highly classified information to the Russians destroyed much of his reputation in Washington. Now, what remains of that reputation seems to be rapidly evaporating with McMaster’s dismissive “not concerned” response to a high-level advisor (Jared Kushner) reportedly asking the Russians to create a secret, secure communications line through their embassy or other location. While that allegation does not appear a criminal violation in and of itself, it would a highly disturbing addition to an already troubling story on the close relations between the Trump officials and the Russians. The former head of the NSA and CIA under Bush said that such a back channel would be both uncommon and dangerous.
McMaster’s problems began with the President’s bizarre decision to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. This Russian meeting was been a cascading scandal that has grown worse by the hour. First, many felt that things could not get worse after Trump inexplicably met with the very Russian – Kislyak – at the heart of the Russian influence scandal on the day after he fired FBI Director James Comey. The world was debating whether Trump (who publicly denounced the Russian investigation) had canned Comey to try to curtail the investigation. The next morning, American woke to pictures of Trump laughing in the Oval Office with Lavrov and Kislyak.
Then Politico reported that the meeting occurred at the request of Vladimir Putin and the Russians released the photographs without notice to the White House – sending the administration into another tailspin.
Then it pulled out McMaster who walked out in front of the White House and denied something that no one alleged: that the President had released sources and methods. The allegation was that the President told the Russians that he had read intelligence reports on the terrorist threat over computers and then inexplicable told them the name of the village that the information came from. Later the Israelis would confirm that it was their human intelligence and that they did not approve its disclosure — and had to quickly take steps to address the disclosure. McMaster’s statement (with no questions) was viewed as overtly misleading and calculated by many neutral observers. Obviously the release of shared intelligence from Israel (exposing an agent within ISIS) is a serious breach of protocol. Indeed, the White House has never explained why it was necessary for the President to even give the geographic location of the intelligence.
This however is much much worse than the disclosure of the Israeli intelligence. Once again, I have grown weary of those on both ends of this political debate in either assuming the worst about Trump or blinding themselves to real problems. The Russian controversy at a minimum should cause concern for all Americans. It does not make it criminal but it is astonishing to see conservatives making excuses for disclosures of highly classified information to the Russian and such allegations of secret back channels. It is all worthy of detached and dispassionate investigation. On that we should all be able to agree.
McMaster insisted that “We have back-channel communications with any number of individual (countries). So generally speaking, about back-channel communications, what that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner.” He added “we’re not concerned about it.” If that last statement is true, we all have reason to be concerned. Various national security experts have disagreed with that statement for obvious reasons.
I have worked around national security field for a couple decades, including holding and maintaining a TS/SCI clearance for much of that time. I have represented officials accused of leaks and others accused of national security violations. It is certainly true that back channels are often used as was the case in the Cuban missile crisis. However, this is different. Kushner could have easily asked for the creation of a secure line for discussions with the Russians from the Obama Administration. Obama had shown a significant level of deference to Trump’s team after the election, including asking them to approve the campaign on arming the Kurds (which Flynn reportedly blocked initially).
This is different. The allegation is the Kushner went not to the American intelligence but to the Russians to create a secret line of communication. The key would be whether Kushner told American intelligence. If he did, my concerns are reduced (though not eliminated). I expected the White House to come out with that type of statement but it has remained virtually silent for days beyond McMaster’s statement. The most pressing question is whether Kushner shared his plans with Flynn or some other national security adviser or official. The Trump camp was already receiving regular national security briefings and had a staff of national security personnel assigned to it after the election.
I am not sure how Kushner could complete the SF-86 and other standard forms without disclosing such an effort as well as the undisclosed meetings with the Russians. It is one thing to claim (rather implausibly that these meetings were insignificant and thus unworthy of disclosure) but entirely another thing to claim that an effort to create a secret communication channel did not have to be disclosed. This is a very big deal for people who guard our secrets.
I have heard that national security experts are appalled by the role being played by McMaster to deflect these scandals. Most of the top officials have conspicuously removed themselves from these controversies. McMaster looks like the “designated defendant” for the White House. His stated lack of concern over releasing Israeli intelligence to the Russians coupled with his lack of concern of secret Russian communications has left many wondering what would concern him. The problem with being a political human shield is that it leaves little credibility in your dealings with Congress or other countries or even the U.S. military and intelligence organizations.
Once again, the lack of response from the White House has again served to magnify this latest controversy. The White House seems to have taken a largely pedestrian view of scandals — watching the fires with the hope that they will burn themselves out. The problem is that there are too many fires and they are beginning to combine into a runaway firestorm. McMaster has put himself dead center in that firestorm and his credibility is rapidly melting away.