WASHINGTON — President Trump’s national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, will do something people in his job rarely do: appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
SASC Chairman John McCain confirmed McMaster will testify before the panel on Tuesday in a closed session. If McMaster was a civilian, he would not need Senate confirmation to become national security adviser. But because he opted to remain on active duty and retain his rank, he requires a Senate vote to be approved.
Asked about the hearing on Thursday, McCain told reporters there will be a question-and-answer session, but a low-key one, saying it’s “more of a meeting than a hearing.” Yet it comes at a loaded time for the National Security Council, with Capitol Hill charged with questions about Russian contacts with the administration, questions that led to the resignation of McMaster’s predecessor.
Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a senior member of the SASC, said he wants members who don’t know McMaster to acquaint themselves with him and “have confidence in him, since he has such a good reputation.”
Nelson said he has “plenty” of questions, but declined to share them because the session will be classified top secret. On big national security and Trump’s controversial foreign policy positions, the possibilities are nearly endless.
The committee's top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, in a statement after Trump named McMaster, noted the general's "reputation for courage and candor," but said, "There are weighty questions about senior active-duty officers and non-military service that deserve careful consideration. The Senate should play a constructive role in this process.”
Reed had voiced support for retired four-star general James Mattis as defense secretary, with concerns his taking the job might upend the traditional civil-military balance.
The presence of Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief White House strategist, on the principals committee of the NSC has alarmed former officials, analysts and congressional Democrats who believe political strategists shouldn’t be involved in national security decisions.
McMaster’s predecessor, Michael Flynn resigned after less than a month when reports surfaced that he misled administration officials regarding his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States amid reports of Russia’s interference in U.S. elections. And now similar questions surround Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
McMaster’s appointment goes some way toward remedying the disarray at the highest levels of the Trump national security establishment. But many top jobs at the Pentagon remain open after Trump’s pick for Army secretary and Navy secretary both dropped out of the running.
A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a gifted military strategist, McMaster commanded troops during the first Gulf War and received the Silver Star for his role commanding a tank during the Battle of 73 Easting, one of the biggest tank battles since World War II.
McMaster is the former director of the Army's Capabilities Integration Center and the author of the book, "Dereliction of Duty," which explored the military's failure to communicate to U.S. policymakers that their Vietnam War strategy was not working.
The Senate's role is to confirm Cabinet members and move promotions for flag officers, but the Senate does not confirm the president's national security adviser or typically hold hearings for the promotions, unless the officer is a four-star general.
The last time an active-duty general was tapped as national security adviser — Colin Powell under President Reagan in 1987 — he did not appear before the committee, but there was a hearing.
McCain said that members of the committee wanted to follow the precedent with the additional step of calling McMaster to testify. “There was enough interest on the part of Democrats, particularly, but also on the part of some Republicans, to have him before the committee,” McCain said.
McMaster is expected to appear, face a vote in the committee soon after and at some point afterward, a Senate floor vote.
Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine general the SASC staff director when Powell came before the committee viewed McMaster's appearance as, "a very positive signal not just from Lt. Gen. McMaster but from the White House, as previous administrations would have nixed this."
"Previous White Houses would never let this happen, as we tried during many different ones to get the national security advisor to testify. With Powell we had an informal closed session with SASC members."