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With a reputation of speaking truth to power, he became President Trump’s second National Security Advisor…this week on Firing Line
Trump: “He’s a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience”
A warrior, a scholar, and a 3-star general, HR McMaster arrived at the White House after a storied career in the Army
Commanding troops on the battlefield in both Iraq wars
He also wrote a book about what went wrong in Vietnam—when he says men in uniform told lies based on politics
Old Firing Line
At the White House, McMaster convinced the president to send more troops to Afghanistan
But he also found himself at odds with his boss over other threats
McMaster — I’m surprised there are any Russian cyber experts available, based on how active they have been in undermining our democracies in the west
It’s been one year since he left the White House.
What does HR McMaster say now?
‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible by… Corporate funding is provided by… and by…
HOOVER: Welcome back to firing line. GeneralH.R. McMaster.
MCMASTER: Thanks Margaret it’s great to be here with you.
HOOVER: You are a three star general retired now from the army. You are a bestselling author a PHD in history from USC Chapel Hill and you were President Trump’s national security adviser. Now you’re a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
HOOVER: Where I am also affiliated.
HOOVER: I want to take you back to that moment. Twenty four days into the Trump administration when General Flynn loses his job as national security adviser and somebody reaches out to you and asks you to consider coming to work for President Trump. For a position that you exhaustively researched in your writing Where were you what were you thinking when you were contacted?
MCMASTER: Well I was I was walking in my hometown of Philadelphia to a to a think tank called the Foreign Policy Research Institute and I was reporting out on a study I commissioned about Russia’s systematic subversion of the West as well as the combination of new military capabilities that we had seen in the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine. And my phone rang and it was a 202 number and it was the deputy chief of staff the White House saying can you go to Mar-A-Lago tomorrow to interview
HOOVER: Is that a little ironic?
MCMASTER: it is I mean of course it was a complete surprise to me to be considered for the job even. But of course I was grateful for the opportunity having studied the importance of that position and having at least from a historical perspective an understanding of how a national security adviser and the National Security Council staff should support a president and an administration.
HOOVER: You were an army general, you retired as a three star but for three decades you served in the army. You also went to Valley Forge Military Academy and also West Point. Where was it in your early childhood or development that inspired you to serve in the Army and have a career in the Army
MCMASTER: From my earliest memory I wanted to serve in the Army and I think I was exposed to military service because my father was an officer in the Army Reserve. He was a first sergeant and then became a captain and a company commander later, going back to age 3 I just thought I wanted to lead soldiers and serve in our army. But.
HOOVER: you were twenty eight years old when you served in the first Iraq war. You led what many have called one of the last great tank battles of the 20th century. The battle of 73 Easting. Tell us what that battle was and why it was noteworthy.
MCMASTER: as a cavalry regiment our mission was to find the enemy to find out where the enemy strong where the enemy is weak and help pull in the heavy divisions into positions of advantage. Well what happened is it was raining really hard for a desert it was really wet. And then there was fog that morning and that was replaced by a sandstorm. And then we made contact with what was called the Tawakalna division of the Republican Guard and we assaulted their defense.
HOOVER: And you were outnumbered in terms of cavalry unit
MCMASTER: We were outnumbered significantly. We were, and really the outcome was a lopsided victory. Thankfully in our cavalry troop we suffered no casualties. You know we had trained really hard and built up that built up that confidence in our ability to fight together as a team.
HOOVER: There’s a story about you finally I graduating from West Point serving in the army and the end of the Cold War coming and a story that you’re just bitter the Cold War is over but you’re not actually going to see real combat.
MCMASTER: Right. Well I think it was kind of a triumphant period right. We had the you know the the end of the Cold War the collapse of the Soviet Union our Calvary Regiment actually was a border cavalry regiment. So the troopers in my cavalry troop had been on the border that day that day that East Germany lifted travel restrictions to the west and from one moment they were staring down East German border guards the next moment they were swamped with East Germans with bouquets of flowers and bottles of wine. And so we saw this dramatic end to the Cold War. And then shortly thereafter we had this lopsided victory in Desert Storm. And so I think the 90s became a period of tremendous confidence, confidence in our power. And of course now we know that geopolitics, competition with authoritarian and closed systems is back. And we have to reenter arenas of competition I think that we largely vacated in that very overoptimistic period in the 1990s.
HOOVER: After the Gulf War you went to the UNC Chapel Hill and got a doctorate in history and your dissertation, your doctoral dissertation ended up becoming a widely reviewed. Well critiqued book about the Johnson administration civil and military leaders during the Vietnam War and what went wrong.
and it brought you to this program Firing Line in 1998. I’d like to have us take a look of a younger H.R. McMaster with William F. Buckley Junior
CLIP MCMASTER: in July of 1965. The president’s dishonesty reach reaches its peak. He tells Congress and tells the American public that he is only authorized half the number of troops he has in fact authorized for deployment to Vietnam. He tells them that that it will cost only the 1 billion dollars that is already in the next fiscal year defense appropriations rather than the thirteen point two billion dollars. He knows it’s going to cost because he knows it that these initiatives and these decisions cannot survive a debate in Congress.
BUCKLEY How many people were aware of that misrepresentation.
CLIP MCMASTER: Certainly Robert McNamara certainly the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And and members of their staffs who generated these estimates on what it would cost to
BUCKLEY: what should have been the action of individual Joint Chiefs resignations.
CLIP MCMASTER: Well no I think what they should have done is told the truth and they were given opportunities to do so.
HOOVER: What is the major lesson?
MCMASTER: I think there are a number of important lessons from the Vietnam War that that I brought with me to my duties and responsibilities in the White House and the first of those was really the need to ensure that you clearly defined what you’re trying to achieve in war. I think what was striking about how and why we went to war in Vietnam and how those decisions were made is that there was really a deliberate effort not to establish an objective
HOOVER: That the president’s objectives were actually his short term political goals
HOOVER: at the expense of a national security strategy.
MCMASTER: Exactly and he was so focused on his domestic priorities that he saw Vietnam really almost exclusively as a danger to those domestic goals and what he wanted to do was to forestall any kind of debate about what to do in Vietnam. What’s what’s ironic about this is Lyndon Johnson didn’t want to go to war in Vietnam I don’t think. But every decision he made led what would seems to be an in retrospect inexorably toward that end.
HOOVER: One of the things you’re most noted for in. Your tenure as national security adviser to President Trump was putting together a national security strategy that was comprehensive within the administration and included our economic strategy that included all elements of our defense strategy. Was that a lesson you drew directly from your research and your writings about Vietnam?
MCMASTER: I do think it was in large measure based on the research I’d done on Vietnam but really the research I’ve done across the Cold War period as a historian and then and then the experience I had in the nineties And then I think in the early 2000s the experience associated with the precipitous withdrawal from Iraq and the unenforced red line in Syria I think we actually swung from overoptimism in the 90s to almost you know pessimism or defeatism even in the 2000s. And the belief that our disengagement from these complex problems overseas was an unmitigated good. And so I thought that what we really needed to do was restore our strategic competence as a nation
HOOVER: It strikes me that the other lesson that you’ve taken was the imperative of civilian and military leaders to tell the truth.
What was your experience as national security adviser in telling the truth. It seems to me. that telling the truth in this White House wasn’t always rewarded?
MCMASTER: Well I think. I think telling the truth is always rewarded in the long run. Right? And so I think those who sometimes feel conflicted you know should I tell the boss what the boss doesn’t want to hear it’s maybe an opportunity to examine what their base motivations are. Right. So I think what was liberating for me in large measure is I wasn’t angling for another job and I just knew that I could best serve the president by by giving the president not my point of view as a national security adviser. But the best advice from coordinating and integrating across all the departments and agencies.
HOOVER: You were national security advisor for a year. Or.
MCMASTER: 13 months
HOOVER: 13 months is more than a year. I mean is that partly because of the lessons you learned about character and truth telling from reviewing history.
MCMASTER: Well you know I wasn’t really concerned about them. How long ago I was going to be in the job
HOOVER: I know you’re not concerned about it, but that wasn’t my question.
MCMASTER: I think well sometimes in these kind of jobs especially in a contentious political environment that really
this was my first assignment in Washington right. And I knew that you had a shelf life. And it was going to use me up as it would probably anybody in that role. But I didn’t want to give the president the disservice of telling the president I thought he wanted to hear. And hopefully those who were there today were doing the same thing. And many of my colleagues across the Cabinet were doing and I think the president appreciated it.
And then there’s a group who think that they’re there to save the country the world you know from the president.
you know like the New York Times op ed author whoever that is I think that’s a tremendous disservice.
HOOVER: I think you’re saying it wasn’t H.R. McMaster.
MCMASTER: Of course it wasn’t. But I think that’s that’s a circumvention of the Constitution. Yeah nobody elects you know generals or intelligence professionals or foreign service officers to make policy. That our government places sovereignty with the people the people exercise that sovereignty through elections and unelected officials shouldn’t be making policy they should be helping to execute policy.
HOOVER: when you told him the truth was that valued?
MCMASTER: It was I think it was valued certainly and really without exception. And I think that the president recognized that what we’re trying to do is to to help him make the best decision for the American people which is what he wanted to do and then to assist with the implementation of his policies and decisions. I think one example of many is the development of the South Asia strategy. Now there’s been some shifting in terms of our approach to South Asia. But remember the president wrote into the speech that he delivered in August of –
HOOVER: 2017 I’m actually gonna show a clip of that. The president ran on drawing down and having a lighter footprint in Afghanistan and ultimately what ended up happening was he sent more troops to Afghanistan. So here is the president in 2017
TRUMP CLIP: All my life. I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office. In other words when you’re president of the United States conditions on the ground not arbitrary timetables will guide our strategy from now on America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.
HOOVER: What was the argument or the series of arguments that were made to the president that helped him change his thinking about Afghanistan and our engagement there.
MCMASTER: what we were able I think to to present to the president is a way for us to to really achieve a sustainable outcome in Afghanistan a country that is really fundamentally transformed from what it was in 2001 and to prevent what we all don’t want to have happen or see happen which is to see a terrorist organization gain control of territory populations and resources that allow them to generate the resources they need and plan prepare and execute attacks and of course this isn’t a theoretical scenario it’s that it was that condition that led to the mass murder attacks against our nation on September 11th 2001.
HOOVER: I know you’ve thought a lot about sort of the military history but what about the political history. What do you think it takes for political actors to persuade the American people to have the will to stay.
MCMASTER: why does this does this conflict and achieving a favorable outcome there matter to Americans. I think it matters to our security but what is the strategy that will deliver the desired outcome at a cost acceptable to the American public and their true test of strategy. I think this is as a lieutenant in our army. Can you explain to your platoon how the risk that your soldiers are going to take. How the sacrifices they may be called on to make will achieve an outcome worthy of those risks and worthy of those sacrifices.
HOOVER: But do you think our political leaders are doing that now with the American people.
MCMASTER: I don’t think we’re doing it enough. No I don’t.
HOOVER: the president has recently just done a victory lap on ISIS. He said We’ve defeated ISIS have we defeated ISIS.
MCMASTER: No we’ve not defeated ISIS or or groups that can emerge next.
HOOVER: So let me play a clip from the president about ISIS being defeated. Let’s take a look.
TRUMP CLIP: We just took over. You know you kept hearing it was 90 percent 92 percent. The caliphate in Syria. Now it’s 100 percent. We just took over a hundred percent caliphate. That means the area of the land. We just have one hundred percent.
HOOVER: Why is he saying that if it’s not true?
MCMASTER: Well I think it’s true maybe militarily but but what’s not true about it is it’s not true that they’re 100 percent defeated because what these groups do and we’ve seen the pattern so many times is they’ll shift their tactics. They’ll stay alive And so how do you how do you break that cycle of violence in the long term. There’s a political element of it but certainly there’s a social and economic. But we need sensible strategies in place to allow us to galvanize efforts of others.
HOOVER: I want to get to. The national security strategy that you outlined and the three pillars of it you have the revisionist powers rogue regimes and transnational terrorist organizations China and Russia are these two ascendant revisionist powers that you talk about a lot. How do you think about. Engaging China and U.S. military strategy vis a vis China.
MCMASTER: Well I think our approach to China and our approach to Russia by the way it was I think affected by what we might call strategic narcissism right. This is this idea that whatever we do is going to be decisive and we tended I think to define the world as we’d like it to be what we did in the national security strategy is take a really hard look at what are the emotions and aspirations that drive and constrain the policies of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Chinese Communist Party today has held maybe a million and a half people in in concentration camps reeducation camps they’re establishing a surveillance state that goes beyond George Orwell’s dystopian vision in the novel 1984. Why are they doing that. They’re doing that because the Chinese Communist Party is obsessed with maintaining exclusive control. And they fear fragmentation or a loss of control. That means they also have to meet the expectations of their population. There is no longer a Maoist communist ideology. There’s a communist lite ideology now. And so the Chinese Communist Party believes that it has to grow the economy at very high rates. To do that they’re employing a broad range of unfair trade and economic practices that threaten our interests. But also it’s driving them to a very aggressive foreign policy because part of keeping the Chinese people loyal to this exclusive control of the Chinese Communist Party they have this narrative of national rejuvenation the return of China to greatness.
HOOVER: Back to the other revisionist power that you mentioned initially that you were working on at the time that you got the call of the national security adviser. How much are Russians interfering with our there, Elections and the democracies of our European NATO allies.
MCMASTER: Right. They’re operating against against the United States and our European allies every day. This is a sustained campaign of subversion by the Russians. It is I think a new form of warfare. In particular it’s this this cyber enabled information warfare. And I believe what Russia’s trying to do primarily is polarize our polity and pit us against each other And so, that’s why you see the support for these crazy right wing sites and these crazy left wing sites. If you look at the percentage of the traffic, the percentage of Russian bot messaging, about 80% was about race, try to divide on race. And other hot button topics–gun control, immigration, and they selected these issues because they were polarizing. And so what’s sad to me is that we’ve played into Russia’s hands by by the vitriolic you know the polarized partisan narrative. I mean I think that it’s time now for us to have nonpartisan discussions about the greatest challenges to our country.
HOOVER: So, one of things you did when your national security adviser was that you went to the Munich Security Conference and you called out the Russians. You said the Russians had intervened in our elections and that fact was incontrovertible
HOOVER: But it wasn’t what your boss was saying at the time.
MCMASTER: Well it well you know I think there’s a tendency maybe on the part of the president but on many people to conflate really three separate issues. One is did Russia meddle in the election. Heck yes they did and they did it with a purpose of really undermining our confidence as I mentioned who we are but also to undermine our confidence in our democratic institutions and processes. The second question is did they were they tried to to to bias the results in favor of one candidate or another. I think that’s still debatable. Most intelligence committee has said they did favor a President Trump based on the the negative that the negative campaign against Hillary Clinton. But I’m not 100 percent convinced of that. The third-
HOOVER: There’s a good reason Vladimir Putin didn’t like Hillary Clinton. I mean she was strongly against his presidency as well.
MCMASTER: Well let’s just quickly say the third or the third The third issue is is did it did it change the result. And I think the president and some others they see that the legitimacy of the presidency wrapped up in all of this. So I think what we can all agree is yes of course they meddled. Yes they wanted to polarize us. Think about what you know really how the Russians played all sides.
HOOVER: Well, he viewed this as an indictment on the legitimacy of his election.
So do you think he sees that as a threat does it. Do you think he sees Russian meddling in the American elections as a threat.
MCMASTER: Well I mean I hope that the president does and the American people do. And I think this is we need to have a discussion about OK what do we do about it now.
But I think whenever we presented options to the president or what to do to confront Russia’s destabilising behavior he took very strong action and I think I think in that first year we sanction over 200 Russian entities that were associated with this activity but also with the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine and in Syria. one of the messages I’ve tried to deliver to my to my my Russian counterpart at one point was that the only thing that the U.S. Congress can agree on is to sanction Russia. So if you think that by attacking our democratic systems and our processes and and trying to polarize Americans society is weakening our resolve to confront Russian aggression. It’s having the opposite effect.
HOOVER: Let me just ask you about the defense budget over 700 billion dollars. We are the most expensive military in the world. We are well resourced thankfully but are those resources in your view being directed. Effectively towards developing the capabilities that we’ll need to challenge and to tackle. The threats that you’ve outlined in our national security strategy argument.
MCMASTER: Well I think we have to work every day to establish a stronger logic trail between what we see as
HOOVER: a logic trail?
MCMASTER: A logic trail from what we see as as the problems of future armed conflict future threats to us which of course now are not just conventional threats but also unconventional threats and the efforts by China Russia others to achieve objectives below the threshold of armed conflict. And as we understand those threats based on a grounded projection into the future develop solutions to those capabilities in the 90s you know when we had this you know this tremendous overconfidence right. The language in defense strategies was really dominance. Everything was dominant. We’re going to have full spectrum dominance over every enemy in the future. And the phrase that became popular in this period of time is we’ll have a capabilities approach based approach. We’ll just envision the capabilities we want in the future way out there. And and that and those capabilities will be dominant in future war. Well guess what. We’re continuously interacting with adversaries. And there’s never a future solution that you can predict today. I mean you have you know the submarine the sonar the bomber the radar the tank the anti-tank missile. And so there’s always going to be this continuous interaction. And we have to recognize what our adversaries are doing and then build the range of capabilities to first of all convince them that they can accomplish their objectives through the threat of force. But also that if we do engage in armed conflict that we have the range of capabilities we need you know
HOOVER: are we getting it. That’s the question. Are we directing that 700 billion dollars in an effective and efficient way to actually address those challenges.
MCMASTER: Well I think in an effective way yes because we’re beginning to address the bow wave of deferred modernization in this period of overconfidence. We weren’t investing in future capabilities.
HOOVER: So are we starting to now
MCMASTER: we’re starting to now
HOOVER: but only starting.
MCMASTER: We’re only starting now really. I mean I think we were we were on a path to degrading capabilities in the 90s and early 2000s based on some fundamentally flawed assumptions about the nature of future conflict. And you know we create these myths about future war and we delude ourselves into thinking well gosh really really the next war will be fundamentally different for all that has gone all that have gone before it
HOOVER: Your high school is Valley Forge Military Academy and they’ve recently named a security studies center in your honor. For those cadets at the H.R. McMaster Center for Security Studies. What should they be preparing for.
MCMASTER: it’s a tremendous honor to have the Valley Forge named the center after me and I had a great experience there and and hopefully the cadets will benefit from the curriculum associated with that center. It’s also kind of a cutting edge center in that it’s really putting new domains of competition especially in cyberspace at the center of it is offering certifications for those who we’re going to be those who to help defend us against these kind of pernicious threats that we see Russia China but many others I mean North Korea is very active in offensive cyber crime and expose as we know the attacks on Hollywood studios as an example. Right. But the theft of an empty of bank accounts in Iran is becoming more effective. This is really you know the democratization of a very dangerous capability we’re seeing globally.
HOOVER: HR McMaster thank you for returning to Firing Line.
MCMASTER: Thank you Margaret. Thanks for having me it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you.
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