Looking for a National Security adviser, President Donald Trump turned on Monday to a career U.S. Army officer with a history as both a warrior known for battlefield heroics and an intellectual who will challenge authority.
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who served two years as commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, was announced by the president at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s club in Palm Beach, Fla. The president called the three-star general “a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience.”
McMaster is a replacement for retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn, who was ousted last week amid a controversy over his contact with Russia prior to Trump being sworn in. Over the weekend, McMaster’s name surfaced as a potential candidate and he was interviewed Saturday by Trump in Florida.
“I watched and read a lot over the last two days,” Trump said. “He is highly respected by everyone in the military and we’re very honored to have him.”
McMaster was a piece of the national security team Trump put in place on Monday. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, Trump’s acting adviser, will now serve as the National Security Council chief of staff. The president also said he would be asking John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to work with them in a “somewhat different capacity.”
During the announcement of McMaster and Kellogg, Trump was asked if Vice President Mike Pence played a role in McMaster’s hiring.
“He did,” the president responded.
McMaster called the presidential appointment an honor.
“I would just like to say what a privilege it is to be able to continue serving our nation,” McMaster said as he sat next to Trump. “I’m grateful to you for that opportunity, and I look forward to joining the national security team and doing everything that I can to advance and protect the interests of the American people.”
McMaster is the first active-duty Army officer to take the post since Gen. Colin Powell served in the role during the final years of the Reagan administration
The news was well received in Columbus, where McMaster served as Fort Benning commander from June 2012 to July 2014 when he was promoted and took his current post with Training and Doctrine Command helping to design the Army of the future.
One person who took notice was retired Lt. Gen. Carmen Cavezza, who knows both McMaster and Kellogg. Cavezza, who served in a variety of leadership roles in Columbus including city manager after retiring in 1994, knew McMaster at Fort Benning and served with Kellogg at Fort Ord.
“That’s an interesting team,” Cavezza said Monday afternoon. “They are both smart and I think they will serve the president well. They are exactly what he needs right now: people he can trust.”
Cavezza said McMaster is a skilled military man and understands his role.
“He is very bright and he’s an intellectual,” Cavezza said.
Kellogg served as a brigade commander under Cavezza, who commanded the 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord during Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama.
“I have not seen him in a long time, but he was a good soldier,” Cavezza said. “I know that he has worked his way up into high-level government positions.”
Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson got to know McMaster during the two years when he was commanding general of the Manuever Center of Excellence. In addition to working with McMaster on issues involving the post and the city, the two became friends, Tomlinson said.
She called Trump’s appointment of McMaster to National Security adviser on Monday “wonderful news.”
“I think it was a fabulous choice,” said Tomlinson, who has most recently been aligned as a Democrat and did not support Trump’s election, on Monday afternoon. “I know I will sleep a little better at night and others should sleep a little better at night knowing the president will get top-notch advice and counsel from H.R. McMaster.”
In a lengthy interview with the Ledger-Enquirer on July 3, 2014, McMaster spoke about leadership.
“Some people have a misunderstanding about the Army,” he said. “Some people think, hey, you’re in the military and everything is super-hierarchical and you’re in an environment that is intolerable of criticism and people don’t want frank assessments. I think the opposite is the case. In the Army, because the stakes are so high — right? — you can’t just be a yes-man and say, “Great idea, boss!” if you don’t believe it — right? — because lives are at stake. And the commanders that I’ve worked for, they want frank assessments, they want criticism and feedback.”
But that feedback has to be grounded in analysis, he said.
“So, if you offer it in a way that it is grounded in good analysis, and it’s respectful, and if you’re giving recommendations that are clearly aimed at advancing your mission, I think the Army and the military probably are very tolerant, even more tolerant than maybe other organizations,” he said.
He earned his reputation for challenging military authority honestly. McMaster wrote the book “Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam” that questioned the Vietnam war leadership. It started as part of his Ph.D dissertation at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was published in 1997.
While McMaster was in Columbus, a local men’s book club read “Dereliction of Duty” and asked him to speak when the members discussed it. More than 20 members of the club and their wives attended the discussion.
Greg Camp — president of the National Infantry Museum Foundation, a retired colonel and, like McMaster, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point — asked the commanding general to talk about his book that night several years ago. The conversation turned from Vietnam to the Middle East.
“I was so impressed with his depth of knowledge of that region,” Camp said. “When we got into a discussion of the Middle East, the wars and conflicts, his knowledge was broad. Part of that was his depth of reading. He knew the region from the Medieval times to the current times.”
Ed Helton, assistant vice president for leadership development at Columbus State University, was also in that book club meeting. Helton, who also worked with McMaster in his Columbus State leadership role including a speaking engagement at the 2013 Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum, praised Trump for the selection of a man he termed “an intellectual warrior.”
“I think this decision is good for our country,” Helton said. “I know that he will be consistent, honest and straightforward with President Trump as anyone he could have selected.”
Helton also pointed out that McMaster was different from the other candidates for the position.
“That is one of the most interesting pieces of this to me,” Helton said. “Since he was active duty, I have wondered if he had an option. But I will say this, he could not have picked anyone with more integrity.”
McMaster also distinguished himself on the battlefield. In 1991, he found himself outnumbered in Iraq as a young Cavalry commander. With nine tanks, 12 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 136 Cavalry troopers, his unit defeated a brigade-sized force.
“I learned a lot from it — confirmed a lot of what we thought about central elements of combat readiness, being ready for a fight,” he said in the 2014 Ledger-Enquirer interview.
He earned the Silver Star, the third highest honor a soldier can earn in combat.
When McMaster’s name surfaced as a potential candidate to replace Flynn, Tomlinson, the Columbus mayor, started to call him.
“I almost reached out, but by that time I realized that this thing was in a whole different orbit,” Tomlinson said.
Job: Lieutenant General, U.S. Army officer. Former commander of Fort Benning and the Maneuver Center of Excellence. Current: assignment: Director, Army Capabilities Integration Center and Deputy Commanding General, Futures, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.
Education: Valley Forge Military Academy, 1980; U.S. Military Academy, 1984; University of North Carolina, master’s and doctorate in American History.
Family: Wife, Kathleen Trotter McMaster.