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Breitbart's war on Trump's top national security aide, explained

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster
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National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster

Breitbart News, perhaps the most important pro-Trump media outlet in America, didn't make much effort to hide its disdain for the president's decision to step up the war in Afghanistan.

In a splash headline, the hard-right nationalist site blasted Trump's primetime speech Monday night announcing that the US would continue fighting as a "flip-flop" that would lead to "endless war." The site blamed "globalists" in the administration for pushing "more war abroad," arguing that "Washington doesn't know" what victory even means in Afghanistan.

Breitbart singled out National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster for blame for the decision.

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"Today's Afghanistan speech by President Trump may be ... alien to his electoral base, though it was not difficult to figure out whose influence led to the speech's neoconservative bent. HR McMaster's voice was clear to hear," Raheem Kassam, the editor-in-chief of Breitbart's London branch, wrote in a piece titled "His McMaster's Voice."

Kassam's piece wasn't a one-off. It was part of a months-long war that Breitbart has been waging against Trump's top foreign policy adviser, publishing article after article attacking McMaster as soft on jihadism, hostile to Israel, and disloyal to the president.

Breitbart's war with McMaster highlights the tension between Trump's unorthodox policy instincts, the things that attracted publications like Breitbart to him in the first place, and the mainstream figures like McMaster who make up an increasingly large percentage of his inner circle.

That fighting is already intensifying now that Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, has retaken his pre-Trump position as Breitbart's chair, a top editorial position. Bannon was known for feuding with McMaster and others, like National Economic Council Chair Gary Cohn, whom he saw as hostile to the Breitbart agenda. Freed from the confines of the West Wing, Bannon can now bash them as harshly as he wants to.

So far, the Breitbart/Bannon offensive hasn't been very effective in shifting policy, as the Afghanistan speech proves. If anything, the nasty public attacks on McMaster have strengthened the formerly embattled official's standing in the White House. (Just months ago, there were rumors that Trump had soured on McMaster and that his job was at risk.)

"These attacks have largely backfired in terms of McMaster's own position within the White House," says Andrew Exum, who held a top Mideast policy position at the Pentagon during the Obama years and has worked with McMaster in the past. "They seem to have provoked or stimulated greater sympathy for McMaster within the government."

But it does have the potential to sow more chaos down the line. The nastier the fight gets, and the more time managing it takes up for McMaster and his staff, the harder it will be for them to do their jobs effectively.

And McMaster is facing a new and dangerous threat from Sheldon Adelson, the pro-Israel GOP megadonor, who is working to cast McMaster as anti-Israel. Breitbart is gleefully amplifying those attacks.

Buckle up.

How Breitbart turned on McMaster

It's important to understand that Breitbart has not always been at war with McMaster.

When the highly regarded general was picked to replace disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in late February, Breitbart covered the appointment as a coup for Trump. The site praised McMaster's academic work on Vietnam and his combat record: "McMaster's leadership at the famed Battle of 73 Easting in Operation Desert Storm was an important part of the U.S. military's resurgence," John Hayward wrote in the first Breitbart piece on McMaster. The site's Pentagon correspondent, Kristina Wong, penned a glowing profile.

"Those who have served with and worked alongside Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Trump's new national security adviser, describe a brilliant leader and military strategist they would follow anywhere," Wong wrote.

For the next few months, McMaster wasn't a major focus of Breitbart's reporting. There were roughly 20 pieces the site categorized as relatingto H.R. McMaster between March and mid-July 2017, several of which were positive. Yet between July 21 and August 22, the site ran 60 pieces tagged as relating to McMaster, the vast majority of which were negative.

One piece claimed that McMaster was "at odds" with Trump and "other presidential advisers and cabinet members" on "key national security issues." Another accused him of supporting "Quran kissing apology ceremonies." A third piece blamed McMaster for Trump's tone-deaf public comment — "that's too bad" — after a US Navy destroyer collided with an oil tanker, killing up to 10 sailors. Virtually every Breitbart article began referring to him as "embattled."

So what caused Breitbart to turn on McMaster? Two of its editors, when emailed for comment, did not respond. But the turn seems to have centered on the firing of three NSC staff members in late July and early August: director of strategic planning Rich Higgins, senior director for the Middle East Derek Harvey, and senior director for intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick.

"It definitely seems like [the attacks] upped in intensity" after the firings, Exum says.

All three of these men were seen as sharing Breitbart's "nationalist" view of foreign policy to varying degrees. It's a worldview that's hostile to Islam and skeptical of America's traditional commitments to alliances like NATO. Higgins, for example, wrote a memo during his time at the White House that sounded like it could have been a Breitbart column. (Sample line: "Islamists ally with cultural Marxists because, as far back as the 1980s, they properly assessed that the left has a strong chance of reducing Western civilization to its benefit.")

McMaster does not share this worldview. He is, in Breitbart terminology, a "globalist": someone who basically endorsed consensus Washington foreign policy positions about the importance of US engagement with allies and in the Muslim world. When he served in Iraq, for example, he was well-known for drilling his troops on cultural sensitivity, believing that respecting Islam and Muslims was a vital means of getting intelligence on terrorist groups and reducing the recruiting appeal of jihadist groups.

McMaster had wanted to restaff the National Security Council for months. He had tried to fire Cohen-Watnick specifically in March, but he was blocked by Trump (reportedly at Bannon's urging). He succeeded seemingly because the recently appointed chief of staff, John Kelly, took his side. It also makes sense that this ultimate success would send Breitbart into a frenzy: McMaster was firing people whom Breitbart saw as its ideological allies inside the administration.

"All three who were fired were given vague reasons why they were being let go, but they believe it was because they supported the president's nationalist foreign policy agenda," Breitbart's Wong, author of the previous glowing piece on McMaster, wrote in mid-August. "McMaster is ignoring those who supported the president during the campaign, and is bringing on people who were Hillary Clinton supporters."

What this all speaks to is Breitbart's deep-seated fear about Trump being captured by the "globalists."

Breitbart was drawn to Donald Trump in the first place because of his willingness to challenge consensus positions inside the Republican Party. Trump's skepticism about free trade agreements, his willingness to ban Muslim immigration and label Mexicans "rapists," his stated hostility to "nation building" in foreign countries — all were at odds with policies that both Democrats and Republicans had been proposing for decades but align perfectly with Breitbart's so-called "nationalist" ideology.

The site's editors recognized that this position was vulnerable: When you're going up against the consensus position, there's a very good chance you'll lose. The greatest threat, after Trump won, was that he would surround himself with people who have essentially conventional mindsets — and would persuade Trump to do the same.

Breitbart editor-in-chief Alex Marlow admitted as much in emails sent to an anonymous prankster pretending to be Bannon in late August. In the emails, which the prankster published on Twitter, Marlow vowed to do the necessary "dirty work" against Breitbart's enemies inside the administration.

"I spooked em today," Marlow wrote to the fake Bannon on August 20. "Did five stories on globalist takeover positioning you as the only hope to stop it."

McMaster's firing of the three aides was these fears of a "globalist takeover" come to life. It was someone who had essentially conventionally views conducting a "purge," as several Breitbart pieces put it, of staffers whom Breitbart saw as vital to ensuring that President Trump's views remained the same as candidate Trump's. That turned McMaster into Public Enemy No. 1.

The decision to continue fighting in Afghanistan is the vindication of these fears. Trump had, literally for years, advocated withdrawing from Afghanistan, a war Breitbart saw as pointless nation building that didn't benefit Americans. McMaster was by all accounts the lead advocate for continuing the war inside the Trump White House — and he won.

"The [speech was] alien language and policy as far as POTUS's supporters are concerned," Kassam wrote in his post-speech summary. "It was McMaster's voice."

Bannon is only likely to intensify this war — and make trouble for McMaster

Bannon is only likely to intensify this war — and make trouble for McMaster.

Bannon, according to basically every leak out of the White House, clashed with McMaster for the exact same reason that his erstwhile colleagues at Breitbart did: He saw McMaster as an advocate of "globalist" ideas that Trump should have stood against.

In May, for example, Just Security's Kate Brannen reported that Bannon and McMaster were clashing regularly over Afghanistan policy. Bannon, according to Brannen, was leaking damaging information on McMaster to far-right outlets — though not, interestingly, Breitbart — in order to weaken his hand and even push him out of the White House. "[It's] "Game of Thrones for morons," said one of Brannen's administration sources.

All White Houses have internal divisions on policy; bitter divides between staffers are to be expected when the stakes are so high. But experts saw the McMaster-Bannon fight as something categorically different, particularly given the degree to which the infighting took place in the public eye and the sheer scope of ideological divide between the two men.

"Bannon-McMaster goes beyond this in many, many ways," says Paul Musgrave, a professor who studies American politics and foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "[They're] representatives of the most extreme debates you could have within, broadly speaking, the institutional right."

Somewhat ironically, this infighting is likely what led to the senior strategist's downfall. Multiple accounts of Bannon's departure last week suggested that the president grew tired of Bannon getting so much attention and Chief of Staff John Kelly grew tired of the infighting, which he mostly blamed on Bannon.

But this also shows that Bannon has no compunctions about using scorched-earth tactics against members of his former bosses' team that he sees as disloyal. He sees his job, by all reports, as keeping the president honest — working as hard as he can to ensure that Trump lives up to the hardline nationalist vision they advanced during the campaign.

Which means that Breitbart under Bannon will continue its newfound hostility toward McMaster. If anything, the fighting will escalate. Breitbart is currently selling fidget spinners with Steve Bannon's face and #WAR imprinted on them, a common Breitbart hashtag denoting its commitment to ideological struggle.

This kind of fighting appears to be escalating. Recently, a lot of Breitbart's reporting about McMaster has focused on allegations that he is hostile to Israel. Editor-in-chief Alex Marlow hosted uber-conservative columnist Caroline Glick on his podcast to bash McMaster as disloyal to both Israel and Trump. "He is pushing and getting implemented a policy, in relation to Israel," Glick said, "of realigning the United States away from its allies in the United States and in favor of Iran and Hezbollah."

Much of Breitbart's reporting has cited statements by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), a hard-right pro-Israel group. The ZOA put out a long report arguing that Cohen-Watnick and the rest are opposed to the Iran deal, which it believes is a disaster for Israel, and that McMaster was appointing people who supported keeping the deal in place.

"General McMaster should not maintain a position where he can continue to undermine President Trump's policies on Iran, Israel and the fight against 'radical Islamic terrorism' — a term that General McMaster believes should not even be used," the briefing argued.

The Israeli officials who have talked to the press seem not to see McMaster as hostile to their interests.

"Anyone who meets McMaster among us and is in contact with him is constantly impressed by how pro-Israeli he is," an anonymous Israeli security official told the newspaper Haaretz in August. "The connection with him is excellent."

But the campaign to paint McMaster as hostile to Israel seems to have real legs. The ZOA is funded by billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. An email between Adelson and ZOA President Mort Klein, reported by Axios's Jonathan Swanon August 19, shows that Adelson is fully on board with the group's campaign against McMaster.

"Now that I have talked to somebody with personal experience with McMaster, I support your efforts," Adelson told Klein.

The cryptic email is a big deal. Adelson is, as Swan writes, probably the most significant donor in the Republican Party. If he's aligning with Breitbart due to the "McMaster is anti-Israel" argument, that has the potential to amplify the argument within the right and create even more issues for McMaster and his staff to respond to.

The main upshot is that this will take up a lot of valuable time and money. The greatest effect might be on McMaster's lower-level staff, who have been targeted in some stories in the right-wing press already. Unlike their boss, they're not used to high-level attention, which means articles criticizing them as a way to get at their boss (especially in personal terms) can bite.

"It's never great to demoralize your own national security staff," Exum says. "That doesn't serve the president; it doesn't serve the country."

But ultimately, it's very hard to know what's coming in this situation. When I asked Musgrave whether he could think of any historical precedent for this kind of conflict — a senior White House aide leaving and sparking an intraparty war against one of their former colleagues, using the media as a primary weapon — he drew a blank.

"I can't think of anything like this because there's never been anyone like Bannon in the White House," Musgrave said. "We're all sailing in uncharted waters."