ANALYSIS | Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain has touched a nerve with one of President Donald Trump’s top aides. And it puts the president’s national security adviser in a very tough spot, hurt feelings and all.
The Arizona Republican often complained to reporters on the national security beat just how tough he found it to get information about strategies and U.S. operations abroad from the Obama administration. He frequently groused that the Obama White House was micromanaging the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community.
This week, McCain seemed to be pining for those days.
“This administration — I had a better working relationship as far as information back and forth with [Obama’s final Defense Secretary] Ash Carter than I do with an old friend of 20 years,” McCain reportedly told reporters this week, referring to current Defense Secretary James Mattis.
McCain got to know Mattis when the Pentagon chief was rising through the Marine Corps officer corps as a battlefield tactician of note, complete with the nickname “Mad Dog.” He was known for his hawkish bravado — just like McCain. Mattis eventually got a fourth star and became U.S. Central Command chief.
But now, Mattis and other Trump administration officials do not appear as willing to take McCain’s calls. And Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, said Thursday he was personally affected by McCain’s assessment.
“It hurt my feelings,” McMaster, a three-star general, said of McCain’s recent comment that he had an easier time getting information from the Obama administration.
“If Sen. McCain says we need to do a better job communicating with him ... we’re going to do it,” McMaster said at a conference in Washington. “This is a problem that we can solve.”
It is not surprising for any White House national security adviser to want to keep a SASC chairman happy — or, at least, happier. After all, the leaders of that committee can complicate life for any administration and president since it performs oversight of national security policymaking via the annual defense authorization bill.
But consider this: Trump and McCain are locked in something of a feud.
McCain, in his first floor speech after returning to the Senate after receiving a brain cancer diagnosis, reminded his GOP colleagues they are not subservient to Trump.
And in remarks Monday evening in Philadelphia, McCain delivered a harsh criticism of Trump’s presidency and its “America first” philosophic foundations.
“To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth,’” McCain said, “for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”
The president fired back the next day during a radio interview.
“People have to be careful because at some point I fight back,” Trump told host Chris Plante. “I’m being very nice. I’m being very, very nice. But at some point I fight back, and it won’t be pretty.” The statement was quite remarkable, because fighting and fighting back are some of the defining characteristics of Trump and his White House.
McMaster now must, among his myriad other daily tasks, play the role of a metaphorical political double agent: He has to serve both his boss — and one of his boss’s fiercest critics.
McMaster delivered the “hurt” feelings line with a nervous laugh. For good reason. McCain’s own hurt feelings make his job, which include managing a still-green, hawkish president and threats like North Korea and Iran — even harder.