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What's Next For McMaster


We're going to focus in now on another staffing change at the White House that looks imminent. NPR and other news organizations are reporting that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster will leave his job once the White House has determined his replacement. Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl is a longtime friend of General McMaster. They worked together on U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. And John Nagl joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us, John.

JOHN NAGL: It's good to be back, Rachel.

MARTIN: So General McMaster is an active duty Army lieutenant general. If he does leave his job as national security adviser, do you know what he would do next?

NAGL: I don't know for sure, but there is a lot of speculation. So Vince Brooks is the current commander of U.S. forces in Korea. He's been there two years. And just a couple of days ago, very unexpectedly, he announced that he is going to be leaving his post this summer in July or August. It's a little bit early. Usually, it's a three-year tour, and there were no indications before this week that Vince was going to be leaving that command - a very respected general loved by the Koreans. And so there's a lot of speculation in the national security community that that's where H.R. is going to go next...

MARTIN: Because...

NAGL: Vince is being moved out to provide a fourth star for H.R.

MARTIN: And that's the key, right? He doesn't - he can't take a lateral move. That would not look so great. So there has to be a four-star billet somewhere for him, a four-star job, and Korea would be a high post, would put him in the mix when thinking about the strategy as pertains to North Korea.

NAGL: Oh, it would make him by far the most important American on the Korean Peninsula. Not only is there no U.S. ambassador to South Korea, the Trump administration hasn't even nominated somebody. The man they had nominated, Victor Cha, withdrew after he said that a preventive war with North Korea was a bad, bad, bad idea. And he was punished, obviously, for telling the truth about that. So H.R. would be it for the United States if he assumes this position. And, interestingly, he's been a pretty strong voice for what's called preventive war with North Korea, something that gives a lot of people in the community shivers.

MARTIN: I know that there have been names floated as a possible replacement to General McMaster, including John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Do you have any insight into this, into who could take this job?

NAGL: So the names I've heard are Keith Kellogg, who's currently the chief of staff at the National Security Council, Steve Biegun, an executive at Ford Motor Company, who I knew well, former national security official. I worked with him at the Center for a New American Security. Keith would be a - is really a staffer I think, not a principle. I don't think he's going to get the job. He'll stay in his current role. Steve Beigun would, in my eyes, be a great choice. He's a moderate, a pragmatist. But the person I think is going to get the job is John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. And his - the idea of his appointment pretty much terrifies most of the people in the center of the national security community. He's an advocate for preventive war with North Korea and with Iran, very, very strong interventionist hawk. But he does defend the president on Fox News. And he's been meeting with the president, and I believe he's going to be our next national security adviser.

MARTIN: Let me ask you, John. You and I talked early last year after H.R. McMaster found himself having to walk back something that President Trump had said, which has now happened several times. And you told me then that General McMaster was in an impossible position, that the president expects him to defend the indefensible. Do you think this job has taken a toll on him?

NAGL: There's no doubt it has. And no one who works for this president comes out looking better afterwards, with the possible exception of Jim Mattis, who is able to use the military as a little bit of a shield and does have the Potomac between him and the president. But I do think H.R. has been diminished in some ways. His integrity has taken a bit of a hit. But I personally, and most of the people who know him and admire him, think that he's done the minimum necessary in terms of character defacement infringement in order to continue in his position and really work to moderate the president's worst impulses.

MARTIN: Lastly, in just a couple seconds, he also said in that interview no one else in the administration had the same credibility that H.R. has. Are you concerned about what this White House is going to look like without him there?

NAGL: I absolutely am. A friend of mine - all of us are talking about what this all means, and one of my friends said this is the best thing that could have happened to H.R., getting this fourth star. But it's the worst thing that could have happened for the nation. And the nation is worse off without H.R. serving as a moderator on this president in the White House.

MARTIN: Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. Thanks so much, John.

NAGL: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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