Michael Anton is the author of the famous “The Flight 93 Election” article, a powerful statement of the case for supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy. Until recently, he served as deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications on the National Security Council. When Gen. McMaster was replaced as NSC head, Anton left the White House to return to teaching and commentating.
“The Flight 93 Election” piece appeared in “American Greatness.” The editors of that publication interviewed Anton this weekend. The interview is well worth reading.
I want to focus on this exchange:
Q. Several unnamed critics said you “flipped” and became former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s “guy.” In other words, you abandoned the Trump base for McMaster. What do you say to that?
A. It’s both sad and hilarious that people who consider themselves President Trump’s biggest supporters would make this charge, because it’s really a huge insult to the president.
Think it through. The charge only makes sense if you remove agency and responsibility from the president. The implicit assumption is that a staff member, not the president, was making national security decisions throughout the past year. That the administration’s policies and decisions—which I explained and defended—were not the president’s, but were someone else’s. That’s nuts. And, as I said, it’s a huge insult and disservice to the commander-in-chief.
It’s also just not true. I was in the room for nearly every national security decision the president made for the first 15 months of the administration. And let me tell you, there is absolutely no doubt who is in command: President Donald J. Trump.
What’s behind this charge, anyway? How exactly did McMaster or I betray the president or his base? The complainers never say. The unspoken undercurrent seems to be that Trump promised some form of neo-isolationism and hasn’t delivered, because he has been beguiled by staff. But this is hogwash. I studied Donald Trump’s campaign speeches with care. As president, in foreign policy, he has acted exactly as he promised he would. Just last Friday night, the president ordered a strike on Syria. H.R. McMaster wasn’t there. That was all Trump. That action represents who he really is and what he really believes.
In any case, whatever the specific complaints may be, they would be criticisms of the president’s policies—no one else’s. So if we’re going to have that debate, I’ll be on President Trump’s side—as I was when I worked for him. My allegedly pro-Trump critics will have to argue openly against the president. I await that with bated breath.
I don’t fully agree with Anton. It’s possible for the National Security Advisor to push policies inconsistent with what the president’s base wants, what the president campaigned for, and/or what the president is inclined to do.
If that National Security Advisor has the backing of his staff (as he should), and if the disconnect is frequent and fundamental, then staff members fairly can be said to have “abandoned” the president’s base. And saying so does not necessarily insult the president. (I take no position here on whether this happened with McMaster and Trump).
It is, however, an insult to the president to say that this or that adviser has hijacked policy in any strong sense. Anton is right about that. It’s possible for advisers and agency heads to make some decisions the president wouldn’t knowingly consent to. Surely, someone other than President Trump decided that he would re-nominate Chai Feldblum.
But the president makes the big ticket decisions. No one should doubt Anton’s first-hand testimony that the current president is making them when it comes to national security.
Yet, we find headlines like this one in the Washington Post: “Trump, a reluctant hawk, has battled his top aides on Russia and lost.”
I don’t deny that Trump is a reluctant hawk (and there is nothing wrong with that). But the notion that he has “lost” to his top aides on Russia makes no sense. Trump has the final say on these decisions. He also decides who his top aides will be, which ones he will listen to, and which ones he will sack (as he often does).
It’s obvious what the Post is up to here. It cannot square the fiction that Trump owes his election to Russia and/or is vulnerable to blackmail by Putin with Trump’s tough policies towards Russia. Thus, it’s forced to claim that these policies somehow result from Trump losing policy battles with his subordinates.
The result is pathetic journalism — precisely what one would expect from an newspaper whose top priority is political resistance.