Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Two Takes On McMaster's Defense Of Trump - Both Acknowledge He Spoke In Code And Translate

Part 1:  Washington Post writer Glenn Kessler examines National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster's handling of media questions about the President's revealing of classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador.  
"When a White House is confronted with a negative news story, officials face a difficult challenge if the story is largely correct. A common PR technique is to deny things that are not in the story or to make sweeping declarations while ignoring the specifics." (emphasis added)
Kessler goes on to interpret different answers McMaster gave and what it actually means.  For example, here's the first quote:

What McMaster said:
“'What I’m saying is really the premise of that article is false, that in any way the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or that resulted in any kind of lapse in national security.' 
What Kessler says it means:
Now McMaster says the “premise” of the article is false. In other words, it made the president look bad, not that it was wrong." 
Kessler is using McMaster to generalize about how to obfuscate when the telling the truth isn't allowed.  You can read  all the examples at the Washington Post. This is a good lesson on interpreting those hired to defend the indefensible.

Part 2:  For a different take on this, more of a defense of McMaster, listen to NPR, where  Retired Lt. Col. John Nagl talks to host Rachel Martin about McMaster whom Nagl says he knows well from working together in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This interview itself is an interesting exercise as Nagl argues that McMaster is
  • in an impossible position
  • defending the indefensible
  • lending his credibility to the president
  • not telling the whole truth, but not lying either
  • tarnishing his reputation only because the fate of the world could depend on it
 Below is the audio, and below that I wrote out a rough transcript of the interview.  But first a few comments.

Kessler, in the beginning of this post, parsed McMaster's words.  I think it's also important to do the same with Nagl's words  about McMaster and Nagl's intent in this interview.

On a general level - what is Nagl's purpose here?
  • to defend McMaster?  In general, or to a defend a personal friend's reputation?
  • to give the general listeners background so they can better understand McMaster?  
  • to say McMaster knows Trump is lying, and is only defending Trump in a way that allows astute listeners, like reporter Kessler above, to see that he isn't really defending the president, but in order to stay in the administration to keep it from doing anything even worse?

I'll raise more specific questions down below.  Here's the audio from NPR and below it my rough transcript. [Now that this is finished, I see that NPR has the transcript up there too.]

Host Rachel Martin gives background and a bit of audio from HR McMaster responding to questions from the media.  Then she introduces retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, who has known McMaster for a long time.  She asks him:

Q: What do you hear Gen. McMaster trying to do in his public explanations of the president’s actions?
A: HR is in an absolutely impossible situation. and many of us, his friends were concerned that something like this was going to happen when he took this job working for this administration.
He is a man of extraordinary integrity and honor and he’s got a president who has clearly done damage to the United States and to our relationships with our allies around the globe, and meanwhile he’s walking a very fine line around the truth, parsing his words very carefully when he makes statements defending what the president did.
Q:  Parsing his words. Do you think he’s telling the whole truth when he’s defending the president’s actions?
A:  I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I’m reminded of an early class in West Point honor code. HR took that same class.  One of the scenarios the discussed is, what happens if you’ve been invited to a dinner and the dinner was horrible, and the hostess asks, “How did you enjoy dinner?”  What we’re taught to say at that point is,  “I really enjoyed being here and the company I was in.”
That’s what I think HR is doing right now.  I think he is not answering the question he was asked and I think that he is doing so, knowing, absolutely in full cognizance of the fact that he is not telling the whole truth, but he’s being very careful not to tell lies.
Q:  Although the stakes obviously are so much higher than those of insulting a hostess of a dinner party.
A:  The stakes, at this point, and in particular with the Comey revelations that came out last night, literally the fate of the earth could be in HR McMaster’s hands at this point.  The administration is clearly in free fall and HR McMaster is exactly the man the nation needs to have at the center of things at the White House to hold to hold all the pieces together
Q: So because  you know him so well, you think that’s the calculation he made, that it’s better to be there and have to obfuscate from time to time?
A:  I obviously think he’s in an absolutely impossible position.  The president expects him to defend the indefensible.  Nobody else in the administration has the credibility that HR has, and the president is using HR’s credibility in order to try to buttress himself.  HR can’t be completely comfortable with that.  His friends and I believe that it’s worth HR giving up some of his well earned reputation for integrity.  He can be a little tarnished around the edges, we can get the Pope to give him an absolution, because, literally, the fate of the world could depend on his love of country, his judgment, his intelligence, his service in the White House at this absolutely critical time. [emphasis added]

The crux of this, as I see it, is Nagl's statements about the fate of the world.  It's the only justification he gives for McMaster 'tarnishing his reputation' by 'defending the indefensible.'
"the fate of the world could depend on his love of country, his judgment, his intelligence, his service in the White House at this absolutely critical time."
But interviewer Rachel Martin never asks Nagl what it is that McMaster can do in the White House that could change the fate of the world.  She never asks him how he can "hold all the pieces together."
  • Does Nagl think McMaster can talk Trump into being more reasonable?  
  • That he can stop him from doing terrible things?  If so, like what?  And how would he stop him?  
  • Does he think it's important to have someone like McMaster there simply as a witness?  
  • And how does lending the president his credibility help the country?   
And while Martin does say that the stakes are much higher than not insulting a dinner hostess, she doesn't pursue whether that lesson is appropriate here.  

Not insulting the dinner hostess involves not hurting one person's feelings.  It's simple human courtesy between two people that has no bigger world consequences.  

But obfuscating to the American public about a US president revealing classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, is NOT about simple human courtesies.  It is, as Nagl says, defending the indefensible.  

One last question is:  Why did NPR do this interview?  I guess I have the same questions for NPR as the ones I raised above for Nagl.  

The interview does add to my knowledge of McMaster, but why didn't Martin ask those critical, and to me obvious, questions about how exactly can McMaster help shape the fate of the world positively by being in the administration and dissembling to the press  as Nagl acknowledges he did?   
She didn't ask whether, perhaps, McMaster is overestimating his own abilities to 'hold the pieces together.'

Lots of questions here.  


  1. Regardless the outcome of this presidential drama, the USA is self-harming its republic. The time and effort needed to recover from willful election of a man unfit for political leadership is worrying.

    Yet my concern regards a more basic question floating about here: Are ‘united’ states possible? To many, Americans have yet to prove the wisdom of its physic.

  2. DJT doesn't deserve any consideration; his opinion of Gen. McMaster is that he is "a pain". Trump doesn't like anyone who makes him look bad.

    The General is the only honest man in the room.


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