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H.R. McMaster on Trump, trust and threats from Russia and China

Retired Army General H.R. McMaster was still on active duty when tapped to replace Michael Flynn as President Trump’s national security adviser in early 2017. He resigned the position himself about a year later. Now, McMaster has written a book, “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World,” which offers a strategic analysis of the world in which we live. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to retired Army General H.R. McMaster, President Trump's former national security adviser.

    He was still an active-duty three-star general when tapped to replace Michael Flynn after he quit the position shortly after the inauguration amid controversy over his dealings with Russian officials.

    McMaster served through a turbulent 2017 and resigned the position early in 2018. He also retired then from the Army after a 38-year career. He's now written a book, "Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World." It is less retrospective of his year-plus in the White House, and more strategic analysis of the world in which America lives now.

    General McMaster, welcome back to the "NewsHour." It's so good to have you join us.

    Let's talk about a few of America's adversaries.

    Russia. We have reported that President Trump is resisting intelligence that the Russians under President Putin are trying to interfere with U.S. elections.

    How did you deal with that resistance when you were in the White House?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Well, I think what was important is to give the president, give any president, but give President Trump or any president, the best analysis from across all departments and agencies.

    And, as you recall, it was a difficult year with Russia when I was in the job as national security adviser. And Russia had acted out in a number of ways, disrupting our elections in 2016, and really waging a sustained campaign of disinformation and propaganda, really political subversion against us.

    And what Russia wants to do, Judy, is, they want to pull us apart from each other. They want to divide us on issues like race and gun control and immigration, and pit us against each other. And they want to diminish our confidence in who we are as a people, in our democratic principles and institutions and processes.

    And all the while they're doing this, they deny it. And this is why it's really important for President Trump, for all of our leaders to acknowledge this disruptive activity.

    Just today, you had the news where Putin claimed that his main opposition figure, Navalny, may have poisoned himself somehow.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But going back to your year in the White House, what did you see the president do with regard to Russian interference?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Well, he did quite a bit, Judy.

    I think we ought to be much more confident in our electoral process now, because we put into place new organizations to secure our election infrastructure, but then also to counter Russian disinformation and propaganda.

    We kind of took the gloves off our cyber-force and our ability to connect a good offense with a good defense in cyberspace. And I think, very importantly, we imposed costs on Russia, I think, beyond what Putin may factor in when he makes these decisions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And yet we continue to see incidents like the Navalny poisoning. There hasn't been a direct connection, but he was poisoned by this Soviet-created poison.

    So, what — it doesn't seem to be working, does it?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Well, you never know what you're deterring, right?

    But it doesn't seem to be working. I think — I think Putin, what he's determined to do is to drag everybody else down. I mean, Russia has some real problems. Their economy is only the size of Texas' economy. COVID was rough on Russia. They had a poor response there. There's the collapse of oil prices.

    I think we have to get rid of this — this hope that suddenly Putin is going to be — is going to be more responsible. I just don't think it's going to happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we said earlier, you were a general, three-star general, when you served in the White House.

    There have been numerous reports, General McMaster, that President Trump has disparaged military officers. He's been quoted as calling soldiers killed in action losers.

    Did you ever hear him say anything like any of that?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    No, I didn't, Judy.

    And, obviously, I wish I can't comment on these reports. I saw them. I mean, I can't imagine anybody saying that. But, obviously, I wasn't there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    China.

    Yesterday, the U.N. secretary-general said it's very dangerous for the U.S. and China to have what he called a great fracture. What do you think are the consequences if the U.S. and China continue on this clear split that they are engaged in right now?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    I think it's really important to recognize that the onus for this is on the Chinese Communist Party.

    It sounds like a free world-China problem to me. And I think it's time for all of us to work together to convince Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party leadership, hey, you can have enough of what you aspire to be, without pursuing these really aggressive policies at our expense.

    What we're recognizing now is, we have to compete. We have to reenter arenas of competition that we vacated, based on the flawed assumption that China was going to play by the rules, that, as they prospered, they would liberalize their economy, and, eventually, they would liberalize their form of government.

    They're doing the opposite, Judy. And we see how they're stifling human freedom. They're engaged in a campaign of cultural genocide in Xinjiang.

    So, I think it's really time for everybody to speak up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    General McMaster, you said in this book that you did not want to write a tell-all.

    And yet we are now seeing a cascade of criticisms coming from an array of former Trump administration officials, in particular, former Defense Secretary James Mattis calling the president unfit, saying he had no — has no moral compass.

    Do you agree with that?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Well, Judy, I — as you mentioned at the outset, I joined our military at age 17.

    And I think what is most dangerous is if military officers, maybe even — even retired military officers, get drug down into the morass of partisan politics.

    And what I'm trying to do, Judy, with this book is to say, OK, while we are at each other's throats, these crucial challenges in the world, they're not going away.

    So, what I hope that the book will do and what I'd like to do in the discourse that the book generates is to transcend this vitriolic partisan environment. And let's begin some discussions with, hey, what can we agree on, and how can we work together across the political spectrum?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, when some people look at the fact that you are not critical of him, they are coming away with the assumption you are comfortable with his being reelected.

    Are they right?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Well, I write about this in the preface, Judy. I say, hey, this isn't the book that most people wanted me to write, including family and friends and agents and publishers and everything else.

    And I think it would be a disservice, right? I don't think — I don't think America needs another tell-all book, another palace intrigue book.

    And, besides that, Judy, I was in a position of privilege there, right? As national security adviser, it's a unique position in government. I mean, you're the only person in the foreign policy establishment who has the president as his or her only client.

    And if you're going to give the president the benefit of best analysis, of best advice from across the government, you have to be trusted in that position.

    To violate that trust, I think, would be inappropriate for any national security adviser, but certainly for one who is serving on active duty.

    And what I worry about, Judy, is, will any president in the future ever again trust that national security adviser? And I think, if you don't have access, as a president, to that wide range of analysis and perspective across the government, it's a disservice to the country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about just answering the simple question whether you are comfortable with President Trump being elected? Will you vote for him for reelection?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Well, Judy, I mean, this is — this is going to be surprising to people.

    I took the example of George Marshall across my whole career. I never voted. And I know that I encourage people to vote. I think that military officers, soldiers should vote.

    But I was very studious about really keeping the military completely separate from partisan politics. And even washed-up generals like me, I think you ought to try to steer clear of partisan politics.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me just finally ask you this.

    President Trump has been saying that he believes the election will be unfair and rigged if he loses. What does that say to you about his belief in our democracy?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Well, I think that's a mistake, right, because what — I think what the Russians want to do, what others want to do is, they want to — as I mentioned, they want to diminish our confidence, our confidence in our democratic principles and institutions and processes.

    So, we ought to be strengthening our confidence.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you're saying it's not helpful, what he's saying; is that right?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    That's right. That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're going to leave it there, General H.R. McMaster.

    The book, as we said a moment ago, is "Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World."

    Thank you very much.

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Thank you, Judy.

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