White House Battles Over National Security Strategy

The Washington Post article from last week about Trump’s refusal to believe that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election contains some fascinating tidbits that are likely to inform what we witness from this presidency going forward. For example, they documented the battle between National Security Advisor McMaster and strategists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller over what would be included in Trump’s speeches about NATO. On a couple of occasions, the latter surreptitiously removed statements of support for NATO in the president’s remarks, leading to this:

Trump finally [mentioned the U.S. commitment to mutual defense] in June during a meeting with the president of Romania. Officials said that in that case, McMaster clung to the president’s side until a joint news conference was underway, blocking Miller from Trump and the text.

That probably explains the discrepancies Peter Beinart documented between the president’s national security strategy document and yesterday’s national security strategy speech. You can see McMaster’s fingerprints all over the document and Miller’s all over the speech. For example:

While insisting that America’s NATO allies pay more for their defense, the National Security Strategy urged American and European unity against the common threat from Moscow. “Russia,” it declared, “is using subversive measures to weaken the credibility of America’s commitment to Europe, undermine transatlantic unity, and weaken European institutions and governments.” To combat that, “The United States and Europe will work together to counter Russian subversion and aggression,” including by reaffirming that “the United States remains committed to Article V of the Washington Treaty,” which obligates America to defend its NATO allies.

Trump’s discussion of NATO, by contrast, omitted any reference to a Russian threat and focused exclusively on the threat posed by America’s deadbeat allies. “I would not allow member states to be delinquent in the payment while we guarantee their safety and are willing to fight wars for them,” he boasted…Unlike the National Security Strategy, Trump said nothing in his speech about America’s obligation under Article 5.

Beinart concludes that the discrepancies indicate that Trump agrees with what was in his speech, not his own national security strategy. That might be true; it has always seemed to me that the president’s core beliefs line up better with the white nationalists in his administration than with the so-called “adults in the room,” such as McMaster. But it’s equally true that on complex matters of national security policy, Trump is more of an empty suit who likes to mouths slogans, but doesn’t dig much deeper than that. White nationalists have much better slogans that the “principled realists” on the national security council can come up with.

Obviously, McMaster didn’t cling to the president’s side yesterday to keep Miller away from the text of Trump’s speech, hence the discrepancies. Comparing the president’s national security strategy to his speech about said strategy demonstrates that the juvenile antics in the White House as described by the Washington Post continue. That sends mixed signals to the entire world about where this country stands. Can someone tell me how that is anything but a recipe for disaster?

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.