WASHINGTON — The White House pushed back Thursday against an MSNBC report that President Donald Trump is planning to replace National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, but that has not stopped speculation that the three-star Army general will be departing the administration in the near future.
National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton said Trump called the report “fake news” in a meeting with McMaster Thursday and informed McMaster “that he is doing a great job.”
The Thursday report suggested that McMaster will soon be replaced by Ford executive Stephen Biegun, who served in the George W. Bush administration. It said the replacement plan was drawn up by Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly.
Biegun served two years on the Bush National Security Council, including as chief operating officer. He also spent time as as national security adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and previously has spent time on the professional staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Biegun was also a top foreign relations adviser on the presidential campaign of John McCain in 2008, during which time he impressed Kori Schake, now deputy director-general at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
“Steve Biegan would be an outstanding national security advisor,” Schake told Defense News shortly after the MSNBC story broke. “He’s smart, he’s competent, he knows how to make stuff work with no drama, and he is one of the few national security experts that also understands economics because he has been a businessman,”
She also praised Biegan for his foreign policy experiences, including two years spent in Moscow, saying it gives him “a deeply, richly skeptical view” of Russia.
The other name to surface in a potential McMaster opening, as it has whenever such an exit has been discussed, is John Bolton, the Bush-era ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton has reportedly had contact with Trump several times since he came to office, and has emerged as a leading hawkish voice when discussing North Korea.
Trump has repeatedly clashed with McMaster, a respected three-star general. The most recent incident was over McMaster’s acknowledgement of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Trump took to Twitter to push back on McMaster’s remarks at the Munich Security Summit last month.
“General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems,” Trump tweeted on Feb. 17, alluding to frequent GOP allegations of impropriety against Democrats and Hillary Clinton.
“We frequently face rumor and innuendo about senior administration officials,” said Raj Shah, the principal deputy press secretary. “There are no personnel announcements at this time.”
Correction 3/2/18 at 3:45 PM EST - the original version of this story quotes Schake as saying Biegun has a “‘deeply, richly skeptical view‘ of inside the beltway thinking.“ After publication, Schake contacted Defense News to clarify she was talking about Biegun’s views on Russia.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.