WASHINGTON — The president’s national security adviser doesn’t usually need Senate confirmation, but for President Trump’s pick, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, it will be different.
That’s because the Senate has a unique role in the confirmation of the military's most senior officials. For McMaster, a senior flag officer, to keep his rank and change jobs, the law requires the Senate to reconfirm him.
Amid an already drawn-out Cabinet confirmation process, the upper chamber will have yet another crack at the Trump administration.
"General McMaster does not require Senate confirmation to serve as National Security Adviser," a Senate Armed Services Committee aide confirmed in a statement to Defense News. "However, if it is the president’s desire that General McMaster serve as National Security Adviser while in his current grade of lieutenant general, the law requires that General McMaster would have to be reappointed by the president and reconfirmed by the Senate in that grade for his new position."
A Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing is unlikely, but McMaster would be asked to agree to testify in the future because of his rank, Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine general and former SASC staff director, said Tuesday. Such testimony could spotlight policy splits between the outspoken general and the unorthodox president.
“All three- and four-stars have to agree to give their ‘personal’ views, if asked, even if they differ from the administration in power. They have to agree to testify — when typically the national security adviser hardly ever testifies, and they always decline when pushed,” Punaro said.
McMaster was director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center and the head of the "futures" center at Training and Doctrine Command. He earned a reputation for outspokenness with his 1997 book, “Dereliction of Duty,” which questioned political and military leadership during Vietnam, and in 2014 made Time Magazine's "100 most influential" list.
Trump fired his previous national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a week ago, after revelations that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about discussing sanctions with Russia's ambassador to the US during the presidential transition. Trump said in a news conference Thursday he did not believe Flynn had done anything illegal.
Retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward turned down the job earlier this month. Politico reported that Harward wanted commitments the National Security Council would be fully in charge of security matters, not Trump's political advisers. And he wanted to be able to select his own staff.
On Tuesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer characterized those reports as "rumors" and said they were "100 percent false," as Harward declined due to family and financial concerns. McMaster, Spicer said, has "full authority to structure the office to his desires."
Spicer said McMaster will "stay on active duty," and that he "would not require Senate confirmation," but did not offer comment on the process beyond that.
Military officers above two-star are appointed to their jobs by the president, and confirmed by the Senate. US Code Title 10, Section 601, requires the officer to be reconfirmed by the Senate in that grade for a new position within 60 days—or they will revert to a two-star.
There are two scenarios in which McMaster would not need to seek Senate confirmation. He could choose to serve as a two-star major general or retire from the military and serve as a civilian.
For McMaster to remain on active duty, as previous national security adviser Colin Powell did, the SASC will have to act first. It must report the nomination to the Senate, and from there, it will go on the executive calendar.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., is likely to fast-track confirmation, as he and most in the national security establishment believe that McMaster is a major positive addition to the Trump team, Punaro said.
In a statement after Trump named McMaster, McCain gave Trump “great credit” for the pick, saying, “I could not imagine a better, more capable national security team than the one we have right now.”
In 1987, before Powell took the job, then-Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and then-Ranking Member John Warner, R-Va., voiced reservations on the Senate floor about a military officer taking the job. Nunn questioned whether Powell would face a conflict between his responsibilities to the president and his dependence on the defense secretary for promotion.
At the time, the committee investigating the Iran-Contra affair recommended against an active-duty officer serving in the job. Still Powell was approved unanimously.
For McMaster, "I would hope like Powell it would be unanimous and I would expect that it should be," Punaro said.
Gordon Adams, an American University professor who oversaw national defense budgeting for the Clinton administration, has rapped Trump for the unusual number of generals he’s placed in key positions.
Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a retired oil executive, and McMaster — “a field man” — have “virtually no diplomatic experience or knowledge of how the US pursues its global purposes and interests,” Adams said.
“The appointment is unwise, as it leaves an inexperienced president served primarily by retired military when it comes to America’s role in the world.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated then-Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft
Senate approval to remain on active duty when President Ford appointed him national security adviser. Ford appointed Scowcroft on Nov. 3, 1975, and the Senate voted Dec. 15, 1975, to place him on the retired list, which took effect Dec. 31, 1975. He retired to take the job.