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H.R. McMaster
Image: picture-alliance/Newscom

Bolton to replace McMaster as Trump's security adviser

Clare Richardson Washington, DC
March 22, 2018

US President Donald Trump has announced that neo-conservative John Bolton will replace H.R. McMaster as national security adviser. The respected general is replaced by a hawk who advocated for war with Iraq in 2003.


In a country fixated on which senior Trump adviser will be the next to get the boot, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster's departure does not come as a major surprise. The United States' top advisor on national security had been on thin ice for an eternity in the Trump era of news cycles.

Thanking the president for his friendship, McMaster said he has filed a retirement request.

"After 34 years of service to our nation, I am requesting retirement from the US Army effective this summer, after which I will leave public service," McMaster said in a statement. "Throughout my career, it has been my greatest privilege to serve alongside extraordinary servicemembers and dedicated civilians."

Read more: John Bolton: The conservative hawk tapped by Trump

Ahead of the announcement, Nahal Toosi, who covers US foreign policy for the news organization Politico, said there had been speculation for months that Trump was going to fire McMaster. "[He] has been called the Schrödinger's Cat of national security advisers for months," she said, referring to the paradox in physics in which a cat in a box is considered both alive and dead.

Read more: Opinion: John Bolton's rise could be death knell for Iran deal

Drifting out of Trump's orbit and out of a job

McMaster and Trump were always an unlikely team in terms of style. McMaster is a career military officer and academic with a Ph.D. in military history, and Trump considers himself a straight-talking, convention-defying outsider.

H.R. McMaster
McMaster and Trump reportedly clashed over policy in the pastImage: Reuters/Lamarque

The two also appear to have irreconcilable differences in terms of their personalities. Trump prefers casual banter to the orderly updates he received from his national security adviser. According to the Washington Post, which reported in mid-March that the president had told his chief of staff he was ready to sack McMaster, "The president has complained that McMaster is too rigid and that his briefings go on too long and seem irrelevant."

Read more: White House stability under john Kelly 'Depends on if people fall in lie or not'

H.R. McMaster at MSC

McMaster had held his title since February 20, 2017 – far longer than most thought possible. So why is he out of a job now?

North Korea could be a factor. Trump credits his possible upcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un to his administration's tough military posturing. When asked why the North Koreans were potentially ready to come to the table, the US president answered: "Me."

Many critics of Trump's efforts at engagement believe it would be unwise to meet the North Koreans without setting clear terms for any negotiations. McMaster favored a particularly hardline approach.

"[McMaster] opposed any sort of talks with North Korea early on. He was really keen on putting this major pressure campaign almost to the point of bringing the North to its knees before the US was willing to talk to them," Toosi said.

Spring cleaning at the White House

McMaster's retirement comes amid a string of high-profile departures and rumors of a further shakeup among top US officials.

Several of those on their way out the door had tried to rein in Trump on certain issues. Trump's top economic adviser Gary Cohn announced his resignation in early March. A week later Secretary of State Rex Tillerson returned home early from an official visit to Africa after being unceremoniously sacked.

Read more: Opinion: With Tillerson's firing, White House loses a voice of reason

John Kelly
Little appears to be certain in Trump's White House, including whether Chief of Staff John Kelly will keep his job for longImage: picture-alliance/ZUMA Wire/A. Edelmann

Theories as to why Trump has been removing his top staff abound. Does he feel disempowered by Chief of Staff John Kelly's attempts to grapple with the reported chaos in the White House? Has he lost loyalists whispering in his ear and been left to trust his gut feeling? Or is he just feeling more confident in the second year of his presidency and seeking to reshuffle his inner circle to line up with him ideologically? It's crucial to take any analyses of Trump's motivations with a grain of salt. One of the few identifiable trends in his decision-making is the fact that he is a mercurial leader with erratic preferences.

One thing seems certain – Trump has been relishing the uncertainty gripping both his staffers and media pundits. He even joked about his love of the chaos at an annual dinner in March, saying, "The question everyone keeps asking is, 'Who is going to be the next to leave? Steve Miller or Melania?'"

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