McMaster’s Obama holdovers, a second look

I’ve been critical of H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, and I continue to have reservations about him. However, I now believe that one of my posts on the subject was unfair and needs to be revisited.

The post in question discussed Obama administration holdovers on McMaster’s staff. It was based on an article in the Daily Caller by Richard Pollock and Ethan Barton. Throughout the post, I tried to qualify my statements with phrases like “according to Pollock and Barton” and I questioned some of what they said.

Even so, having talked with Michael Anton, a member of McMaster’s staff and a longtime friend of Steve Hayward, I think I gave too much credence to the Daily Caller article.

Anton made two main points and made them persuasively. The first pertained to the issue of holdovers on the National Security Council (NSC) staff generally. The second focused on specific staff members discussed by the Daily Caller and by me.

As to holdovers generally, he explained that the NSC is designed to be staffed by “career” employees and always is. This makes it impossible not have holdovers, and every NSC staff has some. The number of Obama holdovers in the Trump NSC is not unusually large.

The real issue, says Anton, is whether the political people brought in by the prior administration remain in place. The Obama political appointees on the NSC staff were all gone very quickly.

Turning to specific holdovers, Anton assured me that the four people I discussed all are on board with and carrying out Trump policies. They are not resisting Trump or pushing for a continuation of Obama era policy.

For example, Fernando Cutz, McMaster’s director for South America and an Obama holdover, was part of the team that formulated Trump’s new policy on travel to Cuba — a reversal of Obama’s policy. He also took the lead in developing sanctions against Venezuela. Nothing in the Daily Caller article contradicts these claims.

Pollock and Barton complained that during the Obama administration, Cutz worked to advance the administration’s policy of improving relations with the Castro government. Now, under an administration that wants to take a harder line, he apparently is working to advance that objective. This is how government employees are supposed to behave.

We also discussed Allison Hooker, an Obama holdover who remains NSC director for Korea. The Daily Caller article referred to her as “an architect of former President Barack Obama’s Korean policy.” As I pointed out, this seems unfair given that she did not join the NSC until 2014, according to the Daily Caller.

In any event, Anton assured me that in the Trump administration Hooker is not advocating Obama’s “strategic patience” policy. Rather, she is hard at work considering new and tough ways to deal with North Korea and the threat it poses. Nothing in the Daily Caller article says otherwise.

I take Anton at his word and wish Hooker good luck.

When Anton told Pollock and Barton that the Obama holdovers at the NSC are “stalwarts” who faithfully follow the president’s foreign and military policies, he was making more than the relatively trivial point that they are not insubordinate. He was saying that the way they are performing their job shows no reservations about the president’s policy preferences and no preference for Obama’s.

This, of course, is the relevant issue with the non-political holdovers. The Daily Caller article offers no evidence that Anton’s statement is inaccurate.