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H.R. McMaster's Dilemma


Present Trump's administration's national security adviser has had to walk a very fine line these past 48 hours. General H.R. McMaster has twice appeared publicly to try to clarify what the president said last week to high-level Russian visitors. News reports say the president revealed highly classified information. McMaster tiptoed around that assertion. Here are three bits from his comments.


H R MCMASTER: It is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people. That's what he did.

What we don't do is discuss what is and what wasn't classified. What I will tell you is...

I should just make maybe the statement here that the president wasn't even aware, you know, of where this information came from. He wasn't briefed on the source or method of the information, either.

MARTIN: Those careful explanations, though, have not quelled the bipartisan storm of questions about the president's actions and whether they might have carelessly or even recklessly exposed human intelligence assets. John Nagl has known General H.R. McMaster for a long time. They worked together on U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. John Nagl joins us now on the line to talk about General H.R. McMaster and how he's handling all this.

John, welcome to the program.

JOHN NAGL: It's good to be back, Rachel.

MARTIN: What do you hear General McMaster trying to do in his public explanations of the president's actions?

NAGL: H.R. 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. He's devoted his entire life to the service of our great nation. 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 by revealing this information.

Meanwhile, H.R., I'm confident, believes that it is in the interest of the United States for him to dissemble is as far as I want to go. He's - as you said, he's walking a very fine line around the troops, parsing his words very carefully when he makes statements defending what the president did.

MARTIN: Parsing his words. Do you think he's telling the whole truth when he's been defending the president's actions?

NAGL: So I'm - I've been thinking about this a lot. I'm reminded of an early class I took on the West Point Honor Code. H.R. took the same class. And one of the scenarios that they discussed was what happens if you've been invited to a dinner and the dinner is horrible, and the hostess asks, how did you enjoy dinner? And what we're taught to say in that point is I really enjoyed being here in the company I was in.

So that's what I think H.R. is doing right now. I think he is not answering the question that 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.

MARTIN: Although the stakes obviously are so much higher than those of insulting a hostess at a dinner party.

NAGL: Those are the stakes at this point, I think, and in particular with the revelations of the Comey memo that came out last night, I think literally the fate of the Earth could be in H.R. McMaster's hands at this point. The administration is clearly in freefall mode, in other words a spiral. My phrase is the wheels are coming off.

And H.R. McMaster is exactly the man the nation needs to have at the center of things in the White House to hold all the pieces together at this unbelievably critical time in our nation's history.

MARTIN: So because you know him so well, you think that's the calculation that he has made. Better to be there and have to obfuscate from time to time.

NAGL: Well, I obviously think he's in an absolutely impossible position. The president expects him to defend the indefensible.


NAGL: Nobody else in the administration has the credibility that H.R. has. And the president is using H.R.'s credibility in order to try to buttress himself. H.R. can't be completely comfortable with that. But his friends and I believe that it's worth H.R. giving up some of his well-earned reputation for integrity. He can be a little bit tarnished around the edges.


NAGL: We can get the pope to give him an absolution because literally the fate of the world could depend on having his love of country, his judgment, his intelligence, his service in the White House at this absolutely critical time.

MARTIN: Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. Thanks so much, John.

NAGL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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