How Trump could give the Pentagon a McMaster problem

 In Politics

The growing expectation that President Donald Trump is going to force out Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser raises a quandary: would the Army take him back?

Like his precarious position in the White House over the past year, McMaster’s stormy relationship with the Army leadership is nearly legendary due to his questioning of orthodoxy and brusque manner.

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Now, the Pentagon is grappling with what to do with the military’s leading warrior-intellectual should he become the latest Trump aide to be replaced, according to multiple current and former officers and administration officials — a predicament that even McMaster himself hinted at on Friday, when he told a reporter that “everybody has got to leave the White House at some point.”

“This is everybody’s favorite parlor game right now: where does H.R. go?” said a senior Army officer who was not authorized to speak publicly. “He’ll upset some apple carts whether he comes back as a three- or a four-star, because he was in the process of retiring when he got the national security adviser job so no one’s been keeping a seat warm for him to come back in.”

A lot will depend, the officers and officials said, on how much Trump and in his inner circle have soured on McMaster, a hard-charging career military officer who never gelled with the undisciplined commander-in-chief — even if he gained the loyalty of the policy-making apparatus for bringing some stability to a rocky administration.

Trump might be convinced, as some of McMaster’s supporters hope, to reward him like President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, then-Lt. Gen. Colin Powell, who was promoted to four-star general and eventually became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In that case, the top brass would have little choice but to acquiesce, possibly by shifting other generals around. Some active-duty officers suggested in a series of interviews that viable options could be to serve as the commander of troops in Afghanistan, where he previously served, or Korea, where he has not served but has been deeply involved in policy questions at the White House.

“There is no reason the president can’t make him a four-star and give him any four-star job he wants to,” said a retired senior officer who remains in close contact with the Pentagon leadership. “There’s plenty of precedent. The two most obvious ones to me are in Afghanistan and in Korea, both of which he’s been intimately involved with as national security adviser and in both of which the sitting commanders are toward the end of their tours.”

Unlike some stateside Army commands, both posts would keep him mostly away from his Army peers, the retired officer noted, and “would have the advantage of getting him away from Washington.”

Others expressed doubts about such a promotion, citing likely opposition within the ranks and the scant number of available slots at that level that McMaster would be suited for.

The Army only has a certain number of “billets” to fill for each rank — fewer and fewer the higher the rank. Four-star general is the highest in the command structure and unless plans have been made in advance it would be difficult, though not impossible, to assign another officer at that level.

“There just aren’t a lot of four-star jobs out there,” said a another retired senior officer.

Others said a possibility under discussion is to send McMaster back to the Army at his current rank of three-star general. That would open up more job possibilities, such as the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; a post at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where the service trains its future leaders and develops warfighting doctrine; or running the Army’s newest outfit, the Futures Command, which is just being established to oversee the service’s weapons acquisition efforts.

The West Point or Fort Leavenworth jobs could be potentially good fits for McMaster’s academic pedigree, including his PhD in military history.

“If he came back as a three-star, there’s the superintendency at West Point for which he would be very well suited and which would probably be appealing to him,” said the active-duty general, who spoke on the condition he not be identified discussing internal discussions. “Taking him to an academic setting would seem to make the most sense.”

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