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National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster on MSNBC with Hugh

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The transcript:

HH: General H.R. McMaster, thank you for joining me.

HRM: Thanks, Hugh. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

HH: This Sunday in Venezuela, more demonstrations are expected. Your old friend James
Stavridis said on my show on Wednesday, “There’s gonna be a violent civil war. There’s gonna
be massive refugees, and any military intervention in that country would have to come from
Columbia and/or Brazil.” Do you agree with those three assessments?

HRM: Well, I think his assessment is right, that, you know, democracy’s over right now in
Venezuela. And people have talked about what is, could there be a coup? Well, there’s already
been a coup that has happened already. Maduro has prevented the Venezuelan people from an—
havin’ a say in– in their own future. And so with the seating of this constituent assembly, it is—it
is– it is a watershed. And it’s– it’s a tragedy– for the Venezuelan people who are suffering all
kinds of deprivations based on– on the– the failed policies– of two regimes now. And– and it—
it’s really a situation that’s intolerable from the Venezuelan people’s perspective. And so what
we’re endeavoring to do is to work with partners in the region and to work on behalf of the
Venezuelan people to help rescue them from this dictatorship.

HH: Do you see a military intervention from any outside source?

HRM: No, I don’t– I don’t– I don’t think so. I think what’s– what’s really required is for
everyone to have one voice about the need to protect the rights and the safety of the– of the
Venezuelan people.

HH: If there isn’t an intervention, General, does Maduro possess the potential to become a new
Castro but one even more dangerous than Castro was in ’62 when the Soviets put missiles there?
It’s a bigger country, it’s a richer country.

HRM: So the– there are b– there are big consequences obviously, mainly for the Venezuelan
people. But there– there are consequences for security in the– in the region as– as well. And so
we know that– that he’s drawing very heavily, Maduro’s drawing very heavily on support from
the Cubans. He’s also has the Chinese and the Russians underwriting this– this failed regime. This– this authoritarian dictatorship now. And so there– there are regional security implications as well as, as we already see every day, devastating consequences for the Venezuelan people.

HH: Venezuela also has a long history with Iran. And– there are reports that Iran has back and forth with them. Any idea if the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Quds Forces is in Venezuela?

HRM: Well, it wouldn’t– it wouldn’t be surprising. I know, the– of course, their priorities are– are elsewhere, what they’ve done to– to really light the Middle East on fire, to flame this– this very destructive cycle of sectarian violence in the Middle East. I mean, that’s what I think we have to hold the I.R.G.C. accountable for– for. Pull the curtain back on their subversive activities– across– across the greater Middle East.

HH: The reason I bring them up is because, if there are revolts in the street on Sunday and beyond, when the Green Movement occurred in 2009, the besiege, and the I.R.G.C. j– j– were ruthless. They just cut it down. Would you expect Maduro’s government to do the same thing with demonstrations?

HRM: Well, the– there, he’s, their, he’s already doing it, right? I mean, they’re– they are already brutally repressing the Venezuelan people. And you’ve seen this with these gangs of thugs. Typically, the, these are the sorts of organizations that are used. Legitimate security forces are a tool of profession of– cu– or– or they use security forces– as– as tool of oppression. But even what you’re seeing– become more and more– likely and– and– and more and more routine is the use of these sort of gangs of thugs as an extension of a repressive or authoritain– authoritarian regime. You see this in– in– in Iran in the form of what’s called the besiege. Right? You see this with these gangs of– of thugs in Venezuela as well.

HH: Do you want to rule out completely, does the president rule out completely no matter what the situation is, pulling a Panama, as President George Herbert Walker Bush did?

HRM: Well, are you– you know, there’s a long history in the region of– of American intervention, and that’s caused, you know, problems in the past. And so I think that we’re very cognizant of the fact that– that we don’t want to give this regime or others the opportunity to say, “Well, you know, this isn’t the problem with Maduro. This is the– this is the Yankees doing this. This is– this is– the– they’re the cause of the problem.” You’ve seen Maduro have– have some lame attempts to try to do that already. So I think it’s important for us to place responsibility for this catastrophe on Maduro’s shoulders. He is the one who has caused it, and he’s the one who’s perpetuating it.

HH: And General, let’s go to Iran, which I mentioned already. Has Secretary Mattis and President Trump and you decided on clear rules of engagement for when the Iranian ships approach our ships in the Gulf?

HRM: Yes, there are very clear rules of engagement.

HH: And would they, would it be surprising for us to have to sink one of those vessels very soon?

HRM: Well, I– our– our captains, you know, our– our naval– officers and– and leaders are strong leaders who are disciplined. And– and they will do everything they can to, you know, to advance our interests, to protect their sailors and– and to defend themselves if necessary. And the president’s made it very clear. He will never, you know, he will never question– any of our military leaders if they take actions to defend themselves and their soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

HH: And is there– is the report correct that the president wants out of the Iranian nuclear deal?

HRM: Well, the– the president, you know, is more than skeptical about that deal. He calls it, “The worst deal ever.” And in many ways, it– it was the worst deal ever, because it did, it rewarded the regime, gave them so much up front. And– and what happened is, Iran began immediately to violate the spirit of that agreement. Which was meant not only to prevent this horrible regime– that has been victimizing so many people across the greater Middle East and beyond through their support for– for brutal proxy forces, their support for the Assad regime who’s, you know, gassed and murdered his– his own people in large numbers. The support for Hamas, the support for Hezbollah and– and how that has created so much mayhem in the region for these– these– Houthi rebels in Yemen, for example. A regime that has caused so much human suffering already. The intent was to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon, but also then to– to get them to moderate the beha– their behavior. What– what the regime did is the opposite of that. They actually intensified their destabilizing behavior acr– across the region. So the president’s very strong about this when he says, “The main point we oughta focus on is that Iran has violated the spirit of this agreement.” And so what we have done is we have crafted– a strategy along with a lot of our likeminded nations, allies, partners, to counter Iran’s destabilizing behavior. While we still aim to prevent by whatever means is necessary to do so– Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

HH: Now I don’t like the agreement, a lotta people don’t like the agreement, the president doesn’t like the agreement. But if we leave precipitously without a legitimate reason to do so, won’t that undermine our ability to make other agreements in other places? Is that what’s holding us in there, even though they’re violating the spirit of it?

HRM: I think what’s holding us in there right– right now is– is– our determination– as to the degree at which they are violating the letter of the agreement. And they have in the past. Right? They had too much heavy water. They had too many centrifuges running. But when we go to the I.A.E.A. to– to enforce this agreement– the– they– they’ve taken remedial measures. But of course, what they’re doing is they’re stepping over that line. And we have to be very clear. And all of our, all the signatories to this have to be clear that, “If you violate the agreement, then there– there are gonna be consequences. And– and we can’t adhere to an agreement if the main party here, Iran, is violating it.”

HH: Next review is in 90 days. Do you think the president is going to stay in the agreement 90 days?

HRM: Well, these reviews that come up every 90 days– these are internal reports to our Congress. And so they’re– they’re really two separate issues. Do we– do we certify that– that Iran is– is adhering to the deal? And we’re looking very hard at– at their adherence to it with– with our partners– and other signatories to– to the J.C.P.O.A. is what it’s called, the Iran nuclear deal. And then there– there’s also the question of whether or not you stay in the agreement, based on– on– on– on violations.

HH: Any prediction?

HRM: No– no– no predictions at all. I mean, we’re– we’re not prejudging this. We’re– we’re working hard at it every day. And we’re working hard on it as part of a broader approach to– to the problem of Iran, Iran’s destabilizing behavior, the humanitarian and political catastrophe they’re helping to perpetuate, along with, you know, the– those others responsible, including I.S.I.S.– and– and other ter– terrorist groups in the region. But I– I think Iran is behaving in a way that you could say is aimed at keeping the Arab world perpetually weak and enmeshed in conflict, so they can use this chaotic environment in the Middle East to advance their hegemonic aims. Their– their desire to– to dominate in the region.

HH: Should the Supreme Leader be surprised if the president withdraws from this agreement in the next six months, three months? Is it, would it be a shock to him?

HRM: You know, I don’t think it would be a shock to him or– or anybody, because the– the president has made clear that he will– he will judge whether or not Iran is– is sticking to this agreement based on the merits. And– and this president is not afraid to– to do what he sees is right for the security of the American people.

HH: One more connection to this. Hezbollah released announcement to– Newsweek earlier in the week saying that, “President Trump and his administration has a compound ignorance of terrorism and Hezbollah.” Do we? Do you?

HRM: No. I think what you’ve been able to see with– with Hezbollah in recent– in recent months and years is, based on their operations in Syria, what are they? I mean, are they a true representative of the Shia population in Lebanon? Or are they a tool of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran? And I say, I would say they are a tool of the repressive– and– r– Iranian regime and– and the I.R.G.C., this Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps– in particular.

HH: All right, let me switch if I can to North Korea, which is really pressing. And– and remind our audience, at the Aspen Institute ten days ago, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Joe Dunford, said, “There’s always a military– option. It would be horrific.” Lindsey Graham on Today Show earlier this week said– “We need to destroy the regime and their deterrent.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday, I believe, to North Korea, “You are leaving us no choice but to protect ourselves.” And then the Chairman of the Chief of Staff of the Army said, “Just because every choice is a bad choice doesn’t mean you don’t have to choose.” Are we looking at a preemptive strike? Are you trying to prepare us, you being collectively, the administration and people like Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton for a first strike North Korea?

HRM: Well, we really, what you’re asking is– is are we preparing plans for a preventive war, right? A war that would prevent North Korea from threatening the United States with a nuclear weapon. And the president’s been very clear about it. He said, “He’s not gonna tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the United States.” Look at the (UNINTEL) for that regime if it– if– if they have nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States. It’s intolerable from the president’s perspective. So– so of course, we have to provide all options to do that. And– and that includes a military option. Now, would we like to resolve it short of what would be a very costly war, in terms of– in terms of the suffering of mainly the South Korean people? The– the ability of– of that North– North Korean regime to hold the South hostage to conventional fire’s capabilities, artillery and so forth, Seoul being so close. We’re cognizant of all of that. And so what we have to do is– is everything we can to– to pressure this regime, to pressure Kim Jong-un and those around him such that they conclude, it is in their interest to denuclearize. And there are really I think three critical things, came out of the president’s very successful summit with– President Xi of China that were different– that were different from past efforts to work with China, which has always been, you know, the– the desire, right, to work with China– on the– on the North Korean problem. The three things that came out of that are, first of all, that North Korea, Kim Jong-un s– armed with nuclear weapons is a threat not only to the United States, not only to our great allies, Japan and South Korea, but also to China. So that’s a big acknowledgement. The second thing was that– was that, we’re, the goal– the goal of working together with them cannot be the so-called “freeze for freeze.” Where we freeze our– our– our training and then they freeze their program. Because they’re at a threshold capability now. Freeze for freeze doesn’t work anymore. Right? It’s– it’s intolerable. So the goal is denuclearization of the– of the peninsula. That’s the second big thing. The third big thing that came out of it is, China acknowledged they have tremendous coercive economic influence here. They may not have a great political relationship with Kim Jong-un. I mean, who does these days, right? But– but they recognize that they do have a great deal of agency and control over that situation. And so we are prioritizing Secretary of State in the lead obviously, prioritizing an effort to work with the Chinese. As the president has said, as the president has tweeted, right? We– we also though have to be prepared to walk down a path that assumes not as much help from China as we would like.

HH: So that would mean, back to the preemptive strike or some kind of action against Kim Jong-un, should he be sleeping easily at night?

HRM: No, I think– I think he should not be, because he– he has the whole world against him. Right? He’s– he’s isolated– he’s isolated on this. Si– since 1953, the Korean Peninsula has been in a state of armistice. Right? The war never formally ended. And there has been no aggression– no aggression from– from the United States, South Korea, any– any of our allies.

HH: If he were removed, General, would the regime’s behavior change? If that one individual were removed?

HRM: Well, I– I’m not sure about that. I mean, I don’t think anybody has a very clear picture of the inner workings of that regime. What is clear is that it is– it is an authoritarian dictatorship that– that has existed since the end– end of World War II. It is now in its third generation. And there is a difference in this third autocratic ruler, in that he’s as brutal as the previous two have been, but he’s doing some things differently. He’s killing members of his own family even. And so what– what this means for the future of that regime. I mean, I think it’s really almost imp– it’s impossible to predict.

HH: Is it legitimate? You’ve done a lot of strategic thinking about this. Is it legitimate to attempt to achieve regime change by the removing of one– leader of a regime? Is that a legitimate tool of international affairs?

HRM: Well, di– well, I think it depends on– on really the– the– the legal justifications for that, right? And– and this goes back to, you know– j– just war theory. And– and– what is the nature of– of the risk? And– and does that risk justify acting in defense of– of your people and– and your vital interests?

HH: We know the risk a little bit. In 1994, when the first nor– North Korean deal with signed– the people who executed it, Gallucci, Dan Poneman, Joe Wit wrote a book. And they quoted a general saying, “If there is a conflict,” called Going Critical, “there will be a million casualties.” A million casualties. Is that still a good estimate of what happens if– preemptive strike unfolds in North Korea, General?

HRM: You know, wa– one– one thing about war. It’s impossible oftentimes to predict. It’s always impossible to predict the future course of events. Because war is a continuous interaction of opposites, a continuous interaction between your forces and those of the enemy. It– it involves not just the capability to use force, but also intentions and things that are just unknowable at the outset. And so I think it’s important to– to look at– range of estimates of what could happen, because it’s clear that at war, it’s– it’s unpredictable. And so you al– always have to ask the question, “What happens next? What are the risks? How do you mitigate those risks?” And– and obviously, you know, war is– is– is the most serious decision any leader has to make. And so what can we do to make sure we exhaust our possibilities and exhaust our– our other opportunities to accomplish this very clear objective of denuclearization of the peninsula short of war?

HH: If we were to go into a preemptive strike, General McMaster, of some sort, large, small, whatever, would we tell the Chinese before we did that in order to manage their expectations and to limit the possibility of a replay of the Korean War?

HRM: Well, I can– I can’t really talk about any details associated with operational plans or– or strategies. But– but– it would depend on the circumstances I guess—

HH: Have you– have you sat with the president and walked through how China might or might not react to a preemptive strike and how they unpredictably entered the war in the– in the first Korean War?

HRM: Well, as– as a rule, we don’t talk about deliberations with the– with the president, but he’s been very much involved and– and has– has been– deeply briefed, you know, on– on all aspects of the– the strategy– on North Korea.

HH: How concerned should the American people be that we are actually on the brink of a war with North Korea?

HRM: Well, I think– I think it’s– it’s impossible to overstate the danger associated with this. Right, the, so I think it’s impossible to overstate the danger associated with a rogue, brutal regime, I mean, who murdered his own brother with nerve agent in a p– in– in an airport. I mean– I mean, think– think about what he’s done– in terms of his– his own brutal repression of not only members of his regime but his own family.

HH: That’s a prison camp run by the Mafia with nuclear weapons.

HRM: As one author has called it, it’s an “impossible state.” Right?

HH: Or as the chief of staff said, “Just because all the choices are terrible doesn’t mean we don’t
have to choose.” Will this administration choose or will it, as some people said about the last
administration, “lead from behind,” when it comes to North Korea?

HRM: Well, there’s a big difference, right? There’s a big difference in the situation that President
Trump inherited from previous administrations. It’s worse. Situation’s worse. Whereas before
there’s– there’s been this cycle over the years as you– as you know, from demanding that—
that— that North Korea stop its missile program, stop its nuclear program. After those demands,
pressure is brought on the regime. The regime then says, “Oh, I would like to talk.” And then
there– then there’s long, drawn-out negotiations during which the North Korean regime
continues to work on its program. And then a weak agreement is decided upon, which then North
Korea immediately violates, right? Okay, so that’s, so we’re just not gonna repeat that failed
cycle. We can’t do it. And so the– the, it has progressed too far as you’ve seen with these recent
missile tests. And as you’ve seen– they’ve done five nuclear tests. And so– so I– I think what
you’ll see increasingly is that a rec– this is a recognition that North Korea is a global threat. It
requires global action. And so what– what are you seeing now? You’re seeing countries expel
North Korean, so-called “guest workers,” who– who they export overseas to send money back to
the regime. You’re seeing squeezing of a lot of their other illicit activities globally. You’re seeing
economic sanctions now being enforced more rigorously. And so that’s the path everybody needs
to be on. This isn’t, this is a problem for the United States. It is. But this is a big problem for, not
only Japan, South Korea, but also Russia, China, everybo– ever– of course, all of our allies are
with this on us.

HH: The– the– Reuters had a story earlier this week. Two U.S. officials, senior officials confirm
that, “The I.C.B.M.s that North Korea tested can reach anywhere in the United States.” Can you
confirm that, General?

HRM: No. (LAUGH) I’m not gonna confirm it. But– it’s– it is– but, as I mentioned really, I
mean, it’s– the, whether it could reach– you know– San Francisco or– or Pittsburgh or
Washington, I mean, how much does that matter, right? It’s– it’s a grave threat.

HH: Does South Korea need its own nuclear deterrent?

HRM: Well, here’s, this is what’s an important, this is a very important question, right. And—and
of course, it’s– it’s– it’s U.S., United States extended deterrence, nuclear deterrence extended to
our allies that has been really a key to the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. If that regime is
broken, that nonproliferation regime is broken, it’s bad news for everybody. And so imagine now
a Northeast Asia with a nuclear armed North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, right? All of– all countries– (UNINTEL)

HH: Pakistan and India, yeah.

HRM: And so, is that what China wants? Is that what Russia wants? No. I mean, so it is in all of
our interest to insure that North Korea denuclearizes.

HH: Last North Korea question. Is there a red line about which K.J.U. should know?

HRM: Well, you know, President Trump’s been very clear about this, right? That– that he does
not advance, he does not announce red lines in– in advance. But I– I think his overall intention
is very clear, to insure that North Korea does not have the capability to threaten the United States
with a nuclear weapon.

HH: Let me turn to Afghanistan, General. You fought there. You know it. Is there a strategic
plan on the table that’s been adopted by the president yet?

HRM: So what we– what we have is a number of decisions the president has made. You know,
’cause he– he has said, “I want to prioritize the safety and security of the American people.” And
he wants to destroy I.S.I.S. wherever they are. There’s– there’s a tremendously successful
campaign going on with Afghan forces on the– in the lead. It’s an unreported campaign in
Nangarhar Province of the g– Afghanistan. The president has said that, “He does not want to
place restrictions on the military that undermine our ability to win battles in combat.” He has
lifted those restrictions, and you’re beginning to see the payoff of that– as well. The—the
president has also made clear that he, that we need to see a change in– in behavior of those in the
region, which includes– those who are providing safe haven and support bases for the Taliban,
Haqqani Network and others. This is Pakistan in particular that we want to– that we want to
really see a change in– in– in– and– and a reduction of their support– for– for these– for these
groups. I mean, this is– of course, you know, a very paradoxical situation, right, where Pakistan
is taking great losses. They have fought very hard against these groups, but they’ve done so
really only selectively. And he’s—

HH: But there—

HRM: He’s also said– “Others have to share the burden.”

HH: There have been some hard hits in Kabul. Do you have confidence yourself in General
Nicholson, the combatant commander in Afghanistan?

HRM: Oh, of– of course. I’ve known him for many years. I can’t imagine a more– more capable
commander in any– in– in any, on any mission.

HH: Does Secretary Mattis? Does the president?

HRM: Absolutely.

HH: All right. Does the president have some concern with minerals and China’s exploitation of
them, where they’re taking the wealth of the country even as we pay in the (UNINTEL)?

HRM: Sure. Right– right. So– so here, this is– this is something that the, I think the president
has focused all of us on– is– is that if– if the United States is going to invest blood and treasure
on behalf of– of partners, allies, then we ought to expect favorable treatment or at least equal
treatment with competitors economically. And this is not to extract anything, but this is just to
insure that– that if– if– if we are– we are helping– a country, if we are engaged with partners
from a security perspective to– to solidify that relationship, we oughta have a mutually
beneficial economic relationship as well.

HH: You’ll recall that President Obama froze sort of in his Afghanistan review at the beginning
of his administration. President Trump doesn’t want to compare unfavorably with that. When is a
decision coming on the “strategery”– to use a quote from George W. Bush on what we’re gonna
do in Afghanistan?

HRM: Oh. Well, the– well the president’s already made some important decisions on
Afghanistan. He said– he said, listen—

HH: Troop levels and that– that—

HRM: But, you know, but we’re not gonna talk tactics anymore, right? Everything—everything
before was, you know, troop levels and– and– very specific details and– announcing to the
enemy years in advance exactly the number of troops you’re gonna have, exactly what they’re
gonna do and what they’re not gonna do. And so the president has said, that “That is not the way
to fight a war. It never has been.” This is an invention of recent years.

HH: So don’t look for a billboard. Don’t look for an announcement of what we’re gonna be doing
there? Because doesn’t that—

HRM: No.

HH: Don’t you need to sell it to the American people?

HRM: No. I think what, I think there are two things that the American people ought to
understand, and– and that– that– that we all have to talk about. The first is, what is at stake? All
right, what are the stakes in Afghanistan? And the second is, what is the strategy that—that
secures an outcome consistent with the vital interests of the American people? And– and an
outcome that is worthy of the sacrifices– that– that our servicemen and women are making, and-
and the– and– and the tremendous efforts, right, and the risks that they– that they take. And so
that– that’s the answer that– that’s the answer that– that you’ll hear, essentially you’ve heard in
pieces. And what we’re endeavoring to do is pull this all together in a regional strategy that
makes sense. Right, so that we, so that our Secretary of State has laid a very strong foundation
for this. What we’ve had in Afghanistan for years is a disconnected strategy. What we’re doing
militarily was disconnected from what we’re trying to achieve politically. So you say to the
Taliban, “Hey, let– let– let’s see what we can do to accommodate some of your concerns, so we
can end the violence. And by the way, we’re leaving.” And how does that work? And how does it
work when– when your enemy believes that they are ascendant militarily, if you’re trying to—to
– to negotiate some of an agreement? It doesn’t work. You know, and how d– how does it—how
does it work that you’re not connected with what you’re doing into– inside of Afghanistan to
what you want to achieve regionally? And in particular, to engage other na– countries in the
region to play a more productive role or a less destructive role in some cases.

HH: General, you know, I– I’ve talked to Secretary Rumsfeld often, former President Bush, Vice
President Cheney, about their years in the White House and the failure to communicate, over
-communicate with the American people about what the hell we were doin’ and where we were
goin’. Is that going to be a problem in Team Trump as well, on what you just said, but elaborated
by Secretary Mattis, by the president, by you? I very much appreciate you’re doin’ this, because
that’s part of the solution. But is that gonna be a problem again going forward? The inability of
the public to understand what the heck we’re goin’ to and for?

HRM: Yeah. I– I think what the, I think the American public understand, you know, what the—
what the stakes are there. I mean, it, obviously it’s etched in so many of our memories that—that
the– the mass murder attacks against our nation on September 11th, 2001, originated right from-
from Afghanistan, from a Taliban regime that gave safe haven and support bases to Al Qaeda.
And so there’s a recognition that– that– that effort, our efforts really to enable to Afghan forces.
I mean, Americans don’t realize really the Afghan Army suffered 6,700 soldiers killed in action
last year. So who’s doing that, who’s doing the bulk of the fighting? The Afghans are. The
question the president has asked us is, “What more can we do to enable them?” He doesn’t want
to take the war over. The Afghans are fighting a war for their country. And so, what more can we
and others do in– in– in– and– what– what burdens, responsibilities can the United States and
allies and partners share such that the Afghan government, the, its security forces can succeed
against this enemy of all civilization?

HH: Let’s talk about Russia, General. The day before the president signed the sanctions bill, the
vice president gave a speech in Estonia, which had a very succinct summary of our policy
towards Russia. And he said, “The sanctions will not come off until the behaviors which
triggered them are over.” Does that mean they’re in place until Russia withdraws from Crimea?
‘Cause I don’t ever see that happening.

HRM: Yeah. Well, what you– what you see is– broad range of destabilizing behavior on the part
of the Russians and provocative behavior. You know, not– not just in– in Europe but elsewhere.
And so what the– what the president has asked us to do is, and– and the secretary of state is
doing is to– is to counter Russia’s destabilizing behavior where it affects our interests. To—to
take actions to deter any– any– escalation of conflicts or anything that could lead to a
confrontation. ‘Cause I mean, this is what we’ve been avoiding, right, since, you know, since
1945 with first the Soviet Union and– and now Russia. I mean, what the United States has done
since 1945 from a defense and national security perspective is, prevent great power conflict for
really an unprecedented period of time. Right? And then but the third thing he’s asked us to do is
look for areas of cooperation with Russia. Right? There are areas as, and I mean, this—this
relationship is at bottom. Right? It’s– it’s– it’s at its nadir, right? So but– but there are still areas
where interests overlap and to look for areas of cooperation.

HH: But those sanctions and the– Russia’s in Eastern Ukraine. And the– there is a package
allegedly, according to the Wall Street Journal of armament proposals coming to the president.
You see– have you reviewed that yet, by the way, of the– proposal to arm the Ukrainians
against the rebels?

HRM: We’re already giving support to Ukraine. A lot of this is– is really what kinda support
they need to be able to prevent, you know, fur– further invasions of their territory, to be able
to—to– to prevent– any kind of agr– you know, aggressive of offensive action, right, against
the rest of Ukraine. So what you have is you have—

HH: And anti-tank weapons now?

HRM: You have g– well, it’s– it’s, well, I– I think it’s, what’s useful to talk about is d—
defensive capabilities. Does Ukraine desire, need– based on the situation there, greater defensive
capability? I mean, I– I don’t know what that, you know, what that is specifically. It really
doesn’t matter what it is specifically. But that’s one of the things that we’re looking at is, what
form of support Ukraine needs that’s consistent with our interests and everyone’s desire to insure
that Russia doesn’t undertake further destabilizing or– or offensive action that– that could lead
to– much broader conflict? I mean, this is a dangerous situation, but we have to recognize it’s a
dangerous sit– situation of Russia’s creation. Right? And so what we’re endeavoring to do with
our allies– is– is to do everything we can to prevent that conflict from growing.

HH: Does the president have a clear-eyed understanding of the nature of his counterpart in
Russia and the nature of the regime?

HRM: The– the nature of the Russian regime?

HH: Yes.

HRM: Well, I mean, I think everybody’s pretty clear on– on that, right? The nature of the
Russian regime is one person, isn’t it? I mean, s– so– so I– I think– I think– you have—you
have an– an autocratic regime and– and an individual who’s– who’s an extraordinarily effective
job at con– at consolidating power. And you have, I think someone who is active in a way that—
that, you know, I mean, I’m not the best judge of this maybe. But it– it– it is not in the interest of
the Russian people. And– and you see that with the– the reaction from the world, right? In terms
of the sanctions that are placed on Russia and– and a recognition that Russia must play a much
more responsible role in the world– if it’s going to be a full-fledged, welcomed member of the
international community. And, you know, we’re talking obviously about the annexation of
Crimea, the invasion of Ukraine here.

HH: The attack on our election—

HRM: But– but– but also the attack on– on– on our election, the attack, the s– the very
sophisticated campaign of subversion and disinformation and– and propaganda that is ongoing
every day in an effort to break apart Europe and to pit– pit– political groups against each other,
right? To sow dissention and– and– and conspiracy theories. And then, of course, there’s the
support for this murderous regime in Syria, and– and it’s support for really Iran’s objectives in
the Middle East. And so– so I think it, obviously for this range of destabilizing behaviors there
have to be consequences. But does that prevent us from cooperating with them, to maybe begin
to resolve the Syrian civil war and– and end part, at least a portion of that human suffering? Or
where else would our, do it our, where– where– do– where else do our interests align?
Certainly, they should align on North Korea.

HH: Let me conclude, General McMaster, and thanks for the time, by talking about your role in
the White House and the White House generally. “Reset,” according to– Administrator Shulkin
who was on my program this week, Cabinet Member Shulkin. He said, “There was a reset at the
cabinet meeting– this week. And– General Kelly’s arrival has really changed the nature and tone
of the White House.” Do you agree with that? What does General Kelly’s arrival mean?

HRM: Well, what General Kelly’s arrival means is you have an extraordinarily talented leader
with a broad range of experience. And people of course see– retired Marine Corps General, and
they recognize that he has– an extraordinary record of– of accomplishment within the military.
But he also has a broad range of experience now outside the– the military as– in Homeland
Security, where he took over a very complex organization and made tremendous progress
advancing the president’s agenda, and– and our national interests in, as a cabinet secretary. But
also, he’s someone who has had extraordinary experience, oversees complex environments,
complex environments which entail operating with– with people from all departments and
agencies, with indigenous leadership, with allies. And he also has a lot of experience on the Hill
as well. And so, in terms of experience level, you know, demeanor, leadership ability, it’s gonna
be great for all of us I think in terms of improving our ability to operate together as a team. Now,
you know, there, a lot of the conventional wisdom was, you know, “Gosh, you know, it’s chaotic
over there in the White House and everything else.” I’ll– I’ll just tell you that I am very proud of-
of– of our national security team overall. And that’s with here, that’s what’s—

HH: And you’ve seen real chaos commanding in Northern Iraq, commanding in Afghan—I
mean, you’ve seen the chaos of war. (LAUGH) Compared to that, do you, it’s not a chuckling
matter, but when you hear stories of chaos, isn’t that kind of absurd compared to the real thing?

HRM: Right– right– right. And– and what we’re doing is we’re delivering what we’re calling in
— “integrated strategies” based on the president’s guidance. And so what we had, and this is
maybe understandable. And this is, I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense. But the– but the
White House and the National Security Council as part of that became very tactically focused.
You know, it became very operational, with supervising things like troop numbers and– and—
specific authorities. And– and– and what we’ve been able to do is to evolve authorities back to
where they belong. And instead of thinking about tactics, the next little move, we’ve been trying
to view problem sets and opportunities through the lens of our vital national interests, establish
goals. Imagine that. Establish goals for our– our foreign policy and national security strategies.
And then– and then– and then– to find more specific objectives and then orient our efforts,
political, military, economic, toward accomplishing those objectives.

HH: Very last question. Your famous book, Dereliction of Duty. I read the last chapter again last
night. When you talk about McNamara and Ball and Dean Rusk, and you were very critical of
them for not giving the president candid, straightforward advice, limiting options. Were you
naïve at the time, now that you’re livin’ that life? I mean, would you rewrite that chapter
differently now that you’re livin’ that life in the middle of giving the president advice?

HRM: No. I wouldn’t rewrite a word of it. And– and– and I think actually my experiences have
just amplified I think for me the importance of doing– doing our duty, all of us doing our duty—
to– to give the president our– our best advice. Right? And so what we do here in the National
Security Council is– is we integrate the efforts of all of the departments and agencies and
sometimes efforts of our multinational partners to provide options to the president. And then
once the president makes a decision, we help drive sensible and effective execution of– of—of
his decisions. And so I had the– the tremendous benefit, was a real gift to me, right, to have the
opportunity to– to research, read and write about a previous difficult period in history from the
lens of– of the– the president and his key advisors, civilian and military advisors. And so I think
that has– has helped. Doesn’t give me any answers, right? But it’s helped me ask the right
questions and– and– and to make sure that, you know, that I, at least give it my best shot or I try
to do my best for the president and the nation.

HH: General H.R. McMaster, thank you for your time this morning.

HRM: Thank you, Hugh. It was a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.



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