This article was originally published in The American Prospect
When Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, many started turning away from the president. CEOs distanced themselves from the White House. Republican leaders denounced his remarks. But on a Sunday talk show the next day, national-security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster came through to champion his boss.
“The president’s been very clear,” McMaster said in 2017. He emphasized that Trump wasn’t a bigot, and he offered no apologies on the president’s behalf. Instead, he talked about American values in the abstract and evaded Trump’s equivalency between white supremacist and anti-racist protesters.
Journalists described McMaster as part of the “axis of adults” that was supposed to curb Trump’s worst instincts, but during his 13 months in the administration, he more often used his own credibility in Trump’s defense. He stood by as the administration implemented the Muslim ban, he covered up Trump’s divulgence of highly classified military intelligence to Russian officials, and he created an entire national-security process tailored to Trump’s nativist worldview.
Now that Trump has lost the 2020 election, would those who carried out Trump’s policies be held accountable?
In a sign of what other departing Trump appointees are likely to encounter when they look for their next jobs, McMaster has faced no repercussions for any of this. Instead, like many of Trump’s early political appointees, he has leveraged the time he spent in the administration into previously unobtainable prestige and wealth. Interviews with 20 current and former national-security officials from the Trump administration show that those who worked with the president at the highest levels have been welcomed back into the establishment fold. The fact that so many Trump advisers have landed in powerful positions suggests no one who served the administration is too tainted for a university, consultancy, law firm, or corporation. Once again, Trump’s presidency is less a Republican anomaly than an intensification of business as usual.
McMaster has made out particularly well, with appointments at Stanford University, board seats at distinguished nonpartisan institutions, and a lucrative position at Zoom.
“There is no honorable way to serve a corrupt and racist president,” Paul Yingling, a retired military officer who served in combat alongside McMaster in Iraq, told me. “President Trump has this capacity to sense in people that corruption that allows you to trade your integrity for proximity to power. He found it in Jim Mattis. He found it in John Kelly. He found it in H.R. McMaster.”
FOR MANY IN THE POLITICAL ESTABLISHMENT, joining the Trump administration was initially considered to be a mark of shame. In 2016, more than 100 Republican staffers signed a Never-Trump letter.
Trump alumni may have worried that they might struggle to find new jobs in Washington or Silicon Valley or Wall Street. (And certainly a lot of people have cycled out given the administration’s record turnover.) But almost universally, former Trump appointees are profiting from their time in the White House. Even before Trump concedes the election and leaves the White House, they have been normalized.
Despite those initial expectations of a Trump stigma, it’s in fact the people who quit in protest who have suffered most. Kyle Murphy, a former senior defense analyst, decided to leave the Pentagon in June after Trump ordered a military helicopter deployed to scare Black Lives Matter protesters outside of the White House. But publicly resigning and criticizing the administration hasn’t helped this career civil servant land a full-time job. “The scariest and saddest thing is that there are a substantial number of people who back these ideas. They’ll still have a constituency, isolated from the mainstream,” Murphy told me. As for Trump’s political appointees who remained loyal, he says, “I think it’s unlikely they’ll hurt for money or for work.”
Trump’s closest advisers have prospered. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis has a board seat at the giant weapons-maker General Dynamics, a day job at the powerful consultancy the Cohen Group, and a fellowship from Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has gotten a job on the board of Caliburn International, a for-profit company with lucrative government contracts to operate shelters for migrant children. Chief of staff Reince Priebus, White House counsel Donald McGahn, and director of national intelligence Daniel Coats parlayed their administration experience into jobs at top corporate law firms. Economic adviser Gary Cohn landed at a new consultancy. National-security adviser John Bolton, with a $2 million advance in hand, authored a best-seller. Even press secretary Sean Spicer landed a prestigious fellowship from Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
Lesser-known aides have also thrived. National-security assistant Dina H. Powell McCormick secured a senior fellowship at Harvard’s Belfer Center (alongside many Biden officials-in-waiting). She returned to Goldman Sachs and was immediately promoted to a more senior role. Mira Ricardel, Bolton’s deputy, is now consulting for the Chertoff Group, and Nadia Schadlow, McMaster’s chief strategist, got a plum job at the far-right Hudson Institute think tank, where fellow Trump compatriots sit.
In Washington, hiring managers are unlikely to disqualify Trump appointees. “Everyone who served is a grown-up, and everyone understands the exigencies of serving,” a researcher at a conservative think tank told me. “I’m not big on guilt by association.”
And then there was H.R. McMaster, doing the best of all.
MCMASTER WAS 54, ready to retire and start a second career in academia, when the Trump administration came calling in 2017. The administration considered him for a role as envoy in the State Department, where he would run the global campaign against ISIS. It seemed like a good fit for a veteran of both Iraq wars. He was still being vetted for the job when Trump suddenly fired his first national-security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, after news broke that Flynn had held secret meetings with Russian officials.
McMaster was walking down Walnut Street in Philadelphia’s Center City, in town for a think-tank conference, when he received a phone call from a blocked Washington number: Did he want to audition for the national-security adviser post? It was quite the leap from an obscure position at State. Few jobs in the entire U.S. government provide closer proximity to the president. The only catch was that the president whom he’d be so close to was Donald Trump.
“His career had hit a dead end, and this was an opportunity to reignite it,” a former senior intelligence official in the Trump administration told me. “He thought of it as a career-advancing opportunity, his way to pull a Colin Powell and become a four-star.”
The White House needed a new national-security adviser quickly, and with so many traditional Republican national-security operators denouncing Trump, the roster of eligible candidates had narrowed.
McMaster flew to Mar-a-Lago for the job interview that weekend, and, after beating out a couple of other contenders, he was offered the job. At that time, there was little doubt of the president’s priorities: McMaster was smart enough to know what he was getting into.
His new, high-profile job was an instant boon for sales of McMaster’s book, Dereliction of Duty. The 23-year-old study of the Vietnam War hit the Amazon best-seller list and earned him $100,000, according to his executive-branch disclosure forms.
At first, analysts speculated that McMaster would act as a balancing force. Days into the job, he argued that Trump should remove Iraq from the travel-ban list of six countries. His Iraqi counterparts, generals he had trained and served alongside, could no longer travel to the United States. His advocacy was successful, and the White House withdrew Iraq from the next iteration of the Muslim ban. Months later, Trump expanded the ban to eight countries total. McMaster declined to comment about whether he pushed back on any of these other additions.
McMaster had thought he could steer the president, but quickly fell into line—and seemed to be fine with a submissive role. “He was willing to make compromises—why would you take a job that you disagree with the president on, on almost every issue? Because he wanted something for himself. He saw it as a vehicle,” the former senior intelligence official told me. “It’s a status thing for him.”
Within months, McMaster became the person willing to say what was needed. He became the trusted person to go on TV and explain away the latest scandal, as he did when defending Trump’s Charlottesville remarks. When The Washington Post revealed that Trump had shared sensitive intelligence with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in the Oval Office, McMaster stood in the White House driveway and offered a cover story, without denying the substance of the Post’s report.
“Colin Powell’s statement before the American invasion of Iraq tarnished his entire career. McMaster’s driveway moment is of that same category,” said Yingling, who couldn’t square this behavior with the leader he had so admired in Iraq. “He misled the American public for political purposes and traded on the integrity of his office for partisan gain.”
Yingling emailed McMaster that night saying as much. They haven’t spoken since. “He has no idea what he’s talking about,” McMaster told me.
As Trump grew more extreme in his policies, McMaster still sought ways to support him. He had dedicated himself to creating processes at the NSC that added solid policies to Trump’s “America First” sloganeering. He enlisted a team of Republican defense hands to write a National Security Strategy in less than ten months, which former officials told me was quicker than any previous administration. In it, McMaster followed the latest fashion in conservative foreign-policy circles: extreme hawkishness toward China. The plan was released to much fanfare, though Trump was said to have never read it. It became a cover story to retrofit actions that didn’t sit well in the public sphere: Trump’s coddling of autocrats, his disregard for human rights, and his belligerence toward Iran.
Maybe McMaster should have resigned when Trump pushed for Saudi Arabia as his first overseas trip. A presidential visit was an honor that had historically been bestowed upon allies like the U.K. or France, in contrast to the kingdom, which is undemocratic, unequal to women, and draconian in its public policies. McMaster told me that he did not register dissent. The visit emboldened Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to consolidate his power and jail his rivals, events that analysts believe led to the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
No adult in the room could curb Trump’s militarism. Drone strikes abroad increased and the U.S. military dropped the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan, breaking convention by deploying the largest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal. And diplomatically, the U.S. broke convention by moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Brinkmanship, love letters, and meet-ups with Kim Jong Un reversed decades of policy, which encouraged North Korea’s reckless behavior.
But then McMaster put a foot wrong at the Munich Security Summit in early 2018. During a question-and-answer session, he made a passing reference to the fact that Russia had meddled in the U.S. election. It was the thing Trump was the most sensitive about, and nearly five weeks later he forced McMaster out.
When McMaster left the building in April 2018 for the last time, hundreds of staffers clapped him out down West Executive Avenue. Vice President Mike Pence shook his hand. One senior adviser recalled seeing McMaster wipe away a tear. He left on good terms with everyone save the president himself, his former colleagues told me.
But it was the president who cast a shadow over his résumé. Having served Trump during a critical period as a political appointee, would he be able to find work?
MCMASTER HAS BEEN EARNING a fine salary in the military after coming up in a family of modest means. But by Trump-world standards, McMaster was poor. During his last job in the Army, he took home about $200,000 a year and had saved less than $250,000, according to previously unpublished financial disclosures obtained by the Prospect.
After leaving the White House, he quickly rose to the top of the think-tank industry. The Hudson Institute endowed a new role for him with support from the Japanese government. He also joined the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Soon, he was invited to sit on the boards of the Atlantic Council, Foreign Policy Research Institute, International Republican Institute, Smith Richardson Foundation, and West Point.
Academia welcomed him, too. He snagged a two-book deal from HarperCollins and went to write the first book at Stanford. The university’s Hoover Institution named him the Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow. In the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, Dick Cheney cited Fouad Ajami as saying that Iraqis would celebrate the Americans’ arrival. That forever war had framed much of McMaster’s career, so an appointment with the late scholar’s name seemed fitting. Condoleezza Rice now directs the Hoover Institution, where COVID quacks Scott Atlas and Richard Epstein sit. (In a press release, Stanford recently rebuked Atlas, who serves on the White House coronavirus task force, but McMaster declined to comment on his colleague.) Above all, McMaster was excited to join a center that was once home to Milton Friedman. “It’s been a vibrant place for so long,” McMaster told me.
As the pandemic hit, it became harder to defend Trump, but McMaster studiously avoided discussing Trump’s mishandling of the virus even as he spoke publicly about global trends related to the pandemic. Now, with his career doing better than ever, the world’s hottest company came calling.
Zoom’s business was booming, growing from ten million daily meeting participants in December 2019 to over 300 million daily in April. Overnight, it became a verb.
But the company wasn’t prepared for the spotlight. Tech researchers pointed out its poor security and the problems inherent in its choice to maintain servers in China, and employ engineers and developers there. China hawks were particularly wary of the rapidly growing company. “We have concerns about using technologies built by companies that are subject to the Chinese cybersecurity law,” a current Trump White House official told me.
Soon, Zoom was beset by legal trouble. Consumer groups brought lawsuits against it for misrepresenting the strength of its encryption, members of Congress called for inquiries, and the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission began investigations into how private videos ended up online. “Zoom’s alleged security failures warrant serious action,” wrote Federal Trade Commissioner Rohit Chopra. A Zoom spokesperson noted several improvements to its systems, including a separation between China and U.S. operations and enhanced encryption. But as a San Jose company that offered a previously niche software, Zoom didn’t have the Washington presence to confront the crisis. Like Facebook and Twitter, it needed lobbyists and protectors in the capital.
The company quickly staffed up. Since its founding in 2011, Zoom’s board had featured only techies, investors, and executives. It didn’t have any Washington experience and needed someone to coach it through these new security challenges. Critics accused Zoom of being too close to Beijing, so someone who was hawkish on China would be useful. There were many potential choices, but there was one top contender, someone who had recent national-security experience at the highest level: H.R. McMaster.
“During his decorated military career, he has built an expertise in leading through challenging situations and has demonstrated tremendous strength of character,” wrote Zoom CEO Eric Yuan in a statement in May announcing the hire. The almost 900-word press release went over McMaster’s academic and military experience. It noted that he’d written a best-seller and had served as “the 26th assistant to the president for National Security Affairs,” but left out one important detail: that the president he had served was Donald Trump.
McMaster doesn’t want to revisit the details of his time in the White House and doesn’t regret having served Trump. He’s ready to move on. “I’m on the board, hopefully, to make a positive contribution to a great company, a great company that is just trying to do the right thing,” he told me.
Still, he draws on former White House colleagues for advice. When McMaster was set to brief the board recently, he reached out to a former NSC colleague, Robert Spalding, who wrote a memo advocating for the nationalization of 5G networks that leaked and spooked Silicon Valley companies. “I’m not a fan of Zoom,” Spalding told me, but he was happy to offer guidance to McMaster. (McMaster told me he had reached out to Spalding with regard to a separate project.)
McMaster’s board seat came with 118 shares of stock. Since he joined Zoom, its stock price has rocketed, from $150 to as high as $500 a share.
This fall, McMaster launched his second book, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World. The cover shows him in military uniform, as if he himself were defending the world. In 560 pages, he goes out of his way to not pass judgement on the Trump administration. Some speculated that he wanted to maintain access. “I don’t think that there’s a lot about Donald Trump that people don’t know already,” McMaster said.
McMaster had a way of only remembering the successes of his time in office, perhaps hoping that everything he had done for Trump would ultimately be overlooked. It was as if he was still in the role of defending the president, as he had done on Sunday talk shows and on the White House driveway. With universities, research institutions, and corporations welcoming McMaster in, he must have felt vindicated.
As he told me in October, “I think there’s just tremendous rewards associated with government service that are difficult to see these days, you know, because of how partisan it has become.”