WASHINGTON — President Trump picked Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, a widely respected military strategist, as his new national security adviser Monday, calling him “a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience.”
Trump made the announcement at his Mar-a-Lago getaway in Palm Beach, Fla., where he has been interviewing candidates to replace Michael T. Flynn, who was forced out after withholding information from Vice President Mike Pence about a call with Russia’s ambassador.
The choice continued Trump’s reliance on high-ranking military officers to advise him on national security. Flynn was a retired three-star general, and Defense Secretary James Mattis is a retired four-star general.
Trump’s first choice to replace Flynn, who turned the job down, and two other finalists were current or former senior officers as well.
Shortly before announcing his appointment, Trump wrote on Twitter: “Meeting with Generals at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. Very interesting!”
McMaster, 54, is seen as one of the Army’s leading intellectuals, first making a name for himself with a searing critique of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their performance during the Vietnam War and later criticizing the way President George W. Bush’s administration went to war in Iraq.
As a commander, he was credited with demonstrating how a different counterterrorism strategy could defeat insurgents in Iraq, providing the basis for the change in approach that General David H. Petraeus adopted to shift momentum in a war that the United States was on the verge of losing.
McMaster, a native of Philadelphia, has served as director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center at Fort Eustis in Virginia since 2014. But he is best known as one of the top strategists in the armed forces.
A West Point graduate with a doctorate in military history from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, he made a name for himself with his 1997 book, “Dereliction of Duty,” which critiqued the Joint Chiefs for not standing up to President Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War.
He served in the Persian Gulf War and later led a successful counterinsurgency effort in 2005 to secure the city of Tal Afar in northern Iraq that drew praise from President George W. Bush.
With that in mind, Petraeus took a similar approach when he took overall command in Iraq in 2007 with a surge of troops authorized by Bush, making it a priority to protect the civilian population and station US troops in forward posts.
McMaster’s challenge now will be to take over a rattled and demoralized National Security Council apparatus that bristled at Flynn’s leadership and remains uncertain about its place in the White House given the foreign policy interests of Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart News chairman who is the president’s chief strategist.
Most of the security council staff is composed of career professionals, often on loan from military or civilian agencies, and they have complained privately about being shut out of their areas of expertise and kept in the dark about important decisions.
Trump’s aides look on many of those holdovers from the last administration with suspicion, blaming them for leaks. The atmosphere has grown so toxic that some security council staff members have said they feared they were being surveilled.
In addition to reassuring and reassembling the staff, McMaster will have to figure out his own role in the month-old administration.
Other candidates for the job reportedly harbored concern about how much authority they would have, although the White House has said whoever had the job would have the right to assemble his or her own staff.
Trump announced that Keith Kellogg, another retired lieutenant general, will remain as the security council’s chief of staff. Kellogg has been acting national security adviser since Flynn’s resignation a week ago and was one of the four candidates interviewed by Trump on Sunday for the permanent job.
Trump made no mention of K.T. McFarland, the top deputy national security adviser, and whether she would stay.
Trump praised McMaster in a brief appearance before reporters Monday. “I watched and read a lot over the last two days,” he said. “He is highly respected by everyone in the military and we’re very honored to have him.”
McMaster, wearing his uniform, responded in kind. “I’m grateful to you for that opportunity,” he said, “and I look forward to joining the national security team and doing everything that I can to advance and protect the interests of the American people.”
The other two candidates interviewed on Sunday were John R. Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations under Bush, and Lieutenant General Robert L. Caslen Jr., the superintendent of the US Military Academy at West Point.
This was the second time Bolton, an outspoken conservative skeptic of international organizations and treaties, has been considered and rejected for a high-level post in Trump’s administration.
Trump made a point on Monday of praising Bolton and saying that he would find a position for him in his administration eventually.
He made no specific mention of Caslen, but added that “we’ll be talking to some of the other generals that I’ve met.”
The national security adviser is charged with coordinating the departments and agencies to counsel the president on foreign policy and military operations.
Flynn, who had directed the Defense Intelligence Agency and, after retiring, was a strategist for Trump during last year’s campaign, resigned after not telling Pence and others that sanctions against Russia came up in his postelection call with Moscow’s ambassador to Washington.