WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain’s defense of White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster this week amid “disgraceful” attacks from right-wing media outlets is a reminder of the bipartisan support the U.S. Army general enjoys in Congress, particularly among moderate Republicans.
On Monday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain urged U.S. President Donald Trump to denounce a growing campaign against McMaster. Trump has been facing criticism for his delayed condemnation of hate groups following violence Saturday in Charlottesville, Va.
In a stunning press conference Tuesday, Trump reversed himself and doubled down on an earlier stance, equating hate groups and anti-fascist counter-protesters in Charlottesville. In the course of responding to a question about McCain’s challenge, Trump fired back at the Arizona Republican for a vote thwarting GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare.
Trump also added confusion to questions on the fate of his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who is accused of being an alt-right mouthpiece and is struggling with McMaster over the administration’s foreign policy. Bannon embodies Trump’s America First, isolationist leanings, while McMaster is viewed as embracing of a more interventionist, internationalist foreign policy.
“He’s a good man. He is not a racist, I can tell you that. He’s a good person. He actually gets a very unfair press in that regard,” Trump said of Bannon. ”But we’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon, but he’s a good person, and I think the press treats him, frankly, very unfairly.”
McCain’s statement came as McMaster is accused of flushing conservatives from the National Security Council, or NSC, and is a reminder of the support McMaster enjoys in Congress. In March, the Senate approved McMaster, keeping his military rank with broad bipartisan support, 86-10.
“The recent attacks upon [McMaster] from the so-called alt-right are disgraceful,” McCain’s statement reads. “Since this fringe movement cannot attract the support of decent Americans, it resorts to impugning the character of a good man and outstanding soldier who has served honorably in uniform and sacrificed more for our country than any of his detractors ever have.”
“Such smear tactics should not be tolerated and deserve an emphatic response,” McCain added. “I hope the president will once again stand up for his national security adviser and denounce these repugnant attacks, which arise from the same purveyors of hatred and ignorance who precipitated the recent violence in Charlottesville.”
Far-right outlets have been attacking McMaster since the firing of three members of the NSC brought on by his predecessor, Mike Flynn, who had to resign on Feb. 13 for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about Russia contacts during the transition.
The right-wing Breitbart News, once led by Bannon, has spearheaded attacks on McMaster in recent days as undermining Trump’s stated foreign policy agenda. Recent posts there have accused McMaster of ousting NSC staff who were pro-Israel and critical of radical Islam, while allowing Obama administration holdovers to stay on.
The backlash led Trump to publicly defend McMaster as a “good man” and “very pro-Israel” last week. Behind closed doors, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had to intervene between Bannon and McMaster during a policy meeting on Afghanistan, according to a report in Politico.
Earlier this month, McCain said in a radio interview that Trump should “resolve this internecine strife between Bannon and McMaster. You can’t run a train with two engineers.”
Despite the maelstrom inside the White House and conservative circles, McMaster remains popular in Congress
Sen. Tom Cotton, a Capitol Hill contact for the West Wing and another early champion for McMaster, defended him as “a great American” in an Aug. 6 interview with CBS. Cotton did not address the Bannon-McMaster controversy directly.
“There are not many generals out there who are highly decorated in two different wars and also have best-selling Ph.D.s about civil-military relations,” said Cotton, R-Ark., and the chairman of the SASC Airland Subcommittee. “I was happy to bring him to the president’s attention in February. I’m pleased that the president chose him to be his national security adviser.”
Amid the saber rattling between Trump and North Korea, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told Bloomberg Radio on Aug. 10 that Trump has “probably the best foreign policy/defense team of any moderate president.” McMaster, Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly — a retired U.S. Marine Corps general and the former commander of U.S. States Southern Command — were a reason for confidence, Cole said.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a moderate Republican from Florida who did not vote for Trump, also praised McMaster, Mattis and Kelly in a CNN interview Monday. Curbelo fingered Bannon and Trump political strategist Stephen Miller as West Wing advisers seeking to accommodate the alt-right — which he said is “about racism.”
“I really think the president needs to start listening to the highly competent, highly professional patriots on his staff, people like Gen. Kelly, Gen. McMaster, Gen. Mattis; people who have sacrificed for this country, instead of those who believe in accommodating people who are hell-bent on dividing this country on excluding American citizens from the American experience,” Curbelo said.
The popularity continues a thread from March, when the Senate voted to approve McMaster’s three-star rank. The vote was not a foregone conclusion amid concerns for the civil-military divide as Trump surrounded himself with current and former military generals.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., was among the “no” votes but expressed hope McMaster would be a counterweight to Bannon, who was then still on the NSC Principals Committee.
“I have a great deal of respect for both his integrity and his abilities. But I remain deeply concerned that Gen. McMaster’s judgment may not be followed and instead the fevered dreams of Mr. Bannon will influence the most sensitive national security discussions and decisions,” Schumer said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., praised McMaster at the time as an “exceptional” pick, “one of the finest combat leaders of our generation and also a great strategic mind.”
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.