Watching a Trump appointee try to hold onto his job can feel, sometimes, like watching a tipsy cowboy on a bucking mechanical bull. From the moment, back in January, when I started researching a profile of Trump’s embattled national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster, there were rumors that he would soon be out of a job. McMaster sometimes joked, darkly, with colleagues and foreign counterparts about the precariousness of his own position, saying, “I might not be here next week!” In the course of four months, I spoke with twenty current and former staffers on Trump’s National Security Council, and tried to answer an unsettling question: What does it mean to be national-security adviser when one of the greatest risks facing the country may be the President himself? Staffers recounted for me the difficulty of advising a man who takes pride in his imperviousness to advice—and whose limited appetite for detail on pressing matters of national security and foreign affairs means that briefings have to be boiled down, in the words of one former official, to “two or three points, with the syntactical complexity of ‘See Jane Run.’ ” As a decorated war hero, McMaster had always approached the most impossible missions with a kind of blinkered optimism, but he had never dealt with a challenge like this.
by Partick Radden Keefe
When Donald Trump had a phone conversation with Vladimir Putin on the morning of March 20th, the two were at an excruciatingly delicate juncture. American intelligence officials had concluded that Russia had interfered in the 2016 Presidential election, with the goal of helping Trump win, and Trump had become the subject of an investigation, by the special counsel Robert Mueller, into allegations of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. On March 4th, a former Russian spy and his daughter had been poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, announced that the Russian state appeared to be responsible and expelled twenty-three Russian diplomats from the U.K.
Before a phone call to a foreign leader, American Presidents are normally supplied with talking points prepared by staffers at the National Security Council, which is housed in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House. Because conversations between heads of state can range widely, such materials are usually very detailed. But Trump, as a senior Administration official recently put it, is “not a voracious reader.”
The National Security Council has a comparatively lean budget—approximately twelve million dollars—and so its staff consists largely of career professionals on loan from the State Department, the Pentagon, and other agencies. When Trump assumed office, N.S.C. staffers initially generated memos for him that resembled those produced for his predecessors: multi-page explications of policy and strategy. But “an edict came down,” a former staffer told me: “ ‘Thin it out.’ ” The staff dutifully trimmed the memos to a single page. “But then word comes back: ‘This is still too much.’ ” A senior Trump aide explained to the staffers that the President is “a visual person,” and asked them to express points “pictorially.”
“By the time I left, we had these cards,” the former staffer said. They are long and narrow, made of heavy stock, and emblazoned with the words “the white house” at the top. Trump receives a thick briefing book every night, but nobody harbors the illusion that he reads it. Current and former officials told me that filling out a card is the best way to raise an issue with him in writing. Everything that needs to be conveyed to the President must be boiled down, the former staffer said, to “two or three points, with the syntactical complexity of ‘See Jane run.’ ”
Given Trump’s avowed admiration for despots, and the curious deference that he has shown Putin, his staff was worried about the March 20th phone call. Putin had recently been elected to another six-year term, but American officials did not regard the election as legitimate. Staffers were concerned that Trump might nevertheless salute Putin on his sham victory. When briefers prepared a card for the call, one of the bullet points said, in capital letters: “do not congratulate.”
Trump also received a five-minute oral briefing from his national-security adviser, Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond McMaster, who goes by H.R. Before McMaster delivered the briefing, one of his aides said to him, “The President is going to congratulate him no matter what you say.”
“I know,” McMaster replied.