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As Trump's national security adviser, McMaster still wears his Army uniform. Why that matters

March 1, 2017 (Photo Credit: Susan Walsh/AP)
WASHINGTON — National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster continues to wear his Army uniform for at least some official duties while assigned to the Trump White House, an apparent break from other senior military officers who've served as high-profile political appointees while remaining on active duty, and one that could raise questions as he looks to shape policy and advocate the president's agenda.

"So far he has worn his uniform and worn civilian clothes," a White House official told Military Times. "I don't think he's decided to do exclusively one or the other." The official declined to address follow-up questions, including whether the president has expressed an opinion on the matter. Trump, whose fondness for military leaders is evident in his selections for several key posts within his administration, pays close attention to his staff's attire, mindful of the image it conveys. 

But in McMaster's case, the choice to wear military garb holds deeper meaning. On Tuesday, the three-star general wore his blue service uniform during a White House meeting with Egypt's foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry. Setting such a precedence, observers say, could cause confusion or even skepticism among world leaders and others in Washington who may regard the uniform as a military symbol, and wonder whether McMaster represents the administration or the Pentagon — and precisely where he falls in the chain of command. It could also be exploited by Trump's critics as a possible attempt by the general to isolate or distance himself, at least in appearance, from what's been a rough start to the presidency.

"The 'uniform of the day' in the diplomatic and economic and homeland community is the coat and tie," said Arnold Punaro, a retired two-star general who served in the Marine Corps Reserve until 2003. Punaro, who emphasized his "enthusiastic" support for McMaster, spent 23 years working in Congress. That time included his tenure as staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, which in 1987 fast-tracked approval for the last senior military officer to remain on active duty and retain his rank as national security adviser: then-Lt. Gen. Colin Powell.

McMaster's work "coordinating, leading, integrating all aspects of national security is mostly with the coat-and-tie world, and the military [personnel] that are detailed to the National Security Council wear a coat and tie," he added. "So to avoid confusion and misperceptions, I would recommend the coat and tie except in the most exceptional circumstances when military protocol is appropriate, such as a promotion or retirement ceremony or honoring a fallen comrade."

Colin Powell Ronald Reagan National Security Adviser
Then-Lt. Gen. Colin Powell, right, seen here at the White House in November 1987, served as President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser. At left is Reagan and then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.
Photo Credit: Dennis Cook/AP

McMaster took the job after Trump forced out his predecessor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. The president's first choice to succeed Flynn, retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward,  declined the offer, citing family reasons. McMaster officially began his duties as national security adviser on Feb. 21, the White House official said, though the Senate must vote on whether to let him retain his rank while in this role.

Powell, who was a three-star Army general while serving as President Reagan's national security adviser, routinely wore a business suit during public appearances and while carrying out official White House duties. John Poindexter, a three-star Navy admiral who preceded Powell, did so as well.

Several national security experts and lawmakers have praised Trump's choice of McMaster, a respected commander and gifted military strategist. Like others on Trump's national security team, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, both retired four-star Marines, McMaster is viewed as someone unafraid of speaking truth to power. His relative lack of experience operating in politicized Washington is about the only shortcoming that's been cited. 

It remains to be seen how McMaster will adapt to such an environment, one many military officers consider a dystopia that's in some ways more unpredictable and unforgiving than combat. Navigating the Trump White House is seen as another matter, with some observers questioning how much access — and influence — McMaster will have.

In an unprecedented move announced weeks ago, the president installed his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, on the National Security Council's Principals Committee. Moreover, as the New York Times reported, the general does not yet have "walk-in privileges" while the president is working in the Oval Office. Bannon and other senior advisers reportedly do.

Nevertheless, it appears that McMaster has taken steps to restore trust and confidence among National Security Council staff. On the one hand, some were unhappy with Flynn as their boss. On the other, many were rattled by his unceremonious departure, which occurred in mid-February under a cloud of suspicion after it was learned he had misled senior administration officials about his contact with a Russian envoy.

McMaster is said to have the respect and admiration of Mattis, who has proven to be a force in his own right early in the administration, sometimes contradicting controversial statements made by the president. He also successfully argued against calls to re-establish the so-called "black sites" overseas where U.S. counter-terrorism officials conducted abusive interrogations.

At the Pentagon, a spokesman for Mattis declined to say whether the defense secretary lobbied Trump on McMaster's behalf. He noted, though, that the pair have enjoyed a "strong working relationship" dating to the 1990s. And when it comes to issues deemed politically sensitive, each seems to speak in more measured tones than the president and some of his other advisers.

Managing such relationships will be important, especially as the National Security Council debates, refines and executes the president's objectives. Neither McMaster as national security adviser nor Gen. Joseph Dunford as Joint Chiefs chairman fall within the chain of command extending from Trump to Mattis and on to the military's combatant commanders, said Punaro. So McMaster does not have the authority to give them orders or anyone else in the Pentagon. Likewise, Punaro said, Mattis and Dunford can't tell McMaster what to do, even though he remains on active duty. 

Still, within the military hierarchy, McMaster, 54, is subordinate to Mattis, 66, and Dunford, 61, also a four-star Marine. The same could be said with respect to Kelly, 66, even though he is retired and leading an unaffiliated federal agency. In all three instances, it would be customary for those junior in rank to demonstrate the proper respect such stature affords — use of the title "sir," for example. The dynamic between McMaster and Dunford could be particularly noteworthy, especially if the former continues to wear his military uniform while conducting White House business. 

"There's a delicacy to that, in having a three-star chairing a meeting when four-stars are at the table," said Peter Feaver, who worked on the National Security Council under Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "But the right three-star and the right four-star can overcome it."


Powell is seen as the ideal example of an active-duty officer serving as national security adviser, Feaver said. After leaving the White House, Powell went on to pick up a fourth star and become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After he retired from the military, the general became Bush's secretary of state, a post he occupied for four years. Poindexter, by contrast, became a central figure in  the Iran-Contra scandal. He was demoted in rank and nearly sent to prison. 

Still another interesting case study is Robert McFarlane, whom Poindexter replaced as national security adviser. When Reagan picked McFarlane for the job in 1983, the retired Marine lieutenant colonel was just 46 years old but already had extensive exposure to Washington and its competing power centers. He’d worked in the White House, at the Pentagon and the State Department, and had ample familiarity networking with Congress. A range of experience — for better or for worse — that McMaster does not possess.

But like McMaster, McFarlane was younger than many of those in prominent positions within the national security apparatus, and he came to the job with impressive academic credentials and having first been to war. He completed two tours in Vietnam, earning two valor awards for bravery. But guiding effective national security strategy presents unique challenges compared to leading troops in combat. McFarlane struggled to cement his relationship with the president, a drawback he would later cite as one of the contributing factors that allowed Iran-Contra to spiral out of control.

"One’s success in any position," McFarlane told Military Times, "ultimately depends upon the ability to build working relationships based upon knowledge, performance and respect for one’s peers." Asked whether there were moments, as national security adviser, when he felt conflicted between his sense of loyalty to the administration and to the military institution, McFarlane said no. "All officers — whether serving as lieutenants or generals — take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, not an institution of parochial preference."

It will be the same for McMaster, he added, saying "He has been dealing candidly with the highest levels of our government for years and won't face any issues on that score."

Of course, that's yet to be determined. Being a Washington outsider may serve McMaster well in this role. The president has exhibited an affinity for military bearing, and seems willing to heed advice from those who tell it like it is. Alternatively, McMaster's uniform may come to symbolize how he stands apart.

Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter: @adegrandpreWith reporting by Defense News' Capitol Hill correspondent Joe Gould. On Twitter: @reporterjoe
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