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H.R. McMaster on America's enemies and what he saw in the White House

H.R. McMaster: The 60 Minutes Interview
H.R. McMaster: The 60 Minutes Interview 13:23

H.R. Mcmaster was an eyewitness to the Oval Office tempest that forms President Trump's foreign policy. McMaster was national security adviser for 13 months beginning in 2017 and he brought a world of experience to the job. He graduated from West Point, led troops in combat, served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, on the way to becoming an Army three-star general, he earned a Ph.D. in history. McMaster has written a new book called "Battlegrounds." The title refers to threats faced by the U.S. today and to skirmishes at the White House. The now-retired general is a disciple of neither political party. He told us the last few presidents, not just President Trump, have left the United States vulnerable in the eyes of those who would do us harm.

Scott Pelley: How do our competitors view the United States today?

H.R. McMaster: I think our competitors view us as weak and divided. I think they see an opportunity. I think China thinks it's winning. You know, China sees an America that is divided against each other. They see an America that is reeling from a triple crisis of COVID-19, of the recession associated with COVID-19, and the civil unrest and racial division in the wake of the horrible murder of George Floyd, and over issues of inequality of opportunity. And so, China is acting, I think, now much more aggressively because they think it's time to do it. They have a window of opportunity to exploit our weaknesses and to come after us. I think Russia feels the same way. I think other adversaries could feel the same way.

Scott Pelley: The very first line in your book is, "This is not the book that most people wanted me to write."

H.R. McMaster: Right. People wanted me to write another tell-all about my time in the Trump administration. People wanted me to write another book about palace intrigue. I think what Americans need today is we need-- we need a discussion. A meaningful-- a respectful discussion about these very serious challenges to our security, our prosperity, and our influence in the world. 

H.R. McMaster CBS News

President Trump called in McMaster when his first national security adviser quit after 24 days. Michael Flynn had lied about negotiating with Russia before Mr. Trump was inaugurated. The president offered McMaster the job the first time they met.

Scott Pelley: What did your friends and family advise you?

H.R. McMaster: Well, I got a wide range of viewpoints. Many called and urged me to do it, and said, "Here is an unconventional president who needs your help." Others urged me not to do it. And I think a lot of it was because of the, you know, the unconventional, disruptive, and as some would say, offensive nature of President Trump.

Scott Pelley: It was an easy decision?

H.R. McMaster: It was a very easy decision for me.

His uniform changed but not his soldier's view, confront our adversaries and support Iraq and Afghanistan as long as it takes to ensure their stability. But, as in all administrations, the West Wing was riven by rivals.

H.R. McMaster: There is certainly one group of people there who are there to serve the elected president and to serve the country. I think there are other groups there though, as well, a second group that is there really, instead of providing options to the elected president, they really want to advance their narrow agendas. And then I think there's a third group, and I think this is true probably of any administration, who cast themselves in the role of saving the country and maybe the world from the president.

Scott Pelley: Were you trying to save the world from the president?

H.R. McMaster: No. It was my duty to help the president come to his own decisions.

Decisions for a world of trouble principally -- Russian disinformation and election meddling -- and repressive and aggressive China. 

Scott Pelley: What do we misunderstand about China?

H.R. McMaster: For the Chinese Communist Party, they're driven really by two fundamental things. First of all, it's the fear of losing control. That's why they're obsessed with control. That's why you see them extending and tightening their exclusive grip on power with this Orwellian, technologically-enabled surveillance police state. And they're also determined to achieve national rejuvenation, to take center stage in the world.

Scott Pelley: Is the rest of the 21st century essentially a cold war between the United States and China?

H.R. McMaster: It's a competition, for sure. It doesn't replicate the Cold War with the Soviet Union in an exact way, but it's a competition.

Scott Pelley: How is it different?

H.R. McMaster: It's tougher, you know. It's tougher because our economies are intertwined in a way that gives tremendous coercive power to the Chinese Communist Party. I describe their approach as co-option. Co-opt us in with the lure of access to their market and short-term profits. And then coerce us. Coerce us to adhere to their worldview and to make concessions that allow them to achieve competitive advantage against us.

Scott Pelley: What do we misunderstand about Russia?

H.R. McMaster: Whereas China wants to harness its strength and create exclusionary areas of primacy and challenge America, Russia knows it's too weak to do that. What Putin wants to do is, he wants to drag all of us down, right? He wants to polarize us, pit us against each other, reduce our confidence in our democratic principles and institutions and processes.

H.R. McMaster speaks to reporters in the White House briefing room in Washington, U.S., May 16, 2017. Joshua Roberts

On Afghanistan, McMaster convinced a reluctant president to send more troops. McMaster says Afghanistan became America's longest conflict because short-term wishful thinking led three presidents to fight one-year wars, 20 times over.

H.R. McMaster: We went in under this illusion that the war was gonna be fast, cheap, efficient.
And then we turned our attention to the war in Iraq. We kinda forgot about Afghanistan. But, guess what, you know, our enemy didn't forget about it. And so, we have strategies and policies based on what we would prefer to do rather than what the situation demands.

But in the end, Mr. Trump preferred to get out. After McMaster left, the president abandoned the buildup. 

Scott Pelley: You must have come away from that experience thinking the president might make a decision, but it's not likely to stick.

H.R. McMaster: Well, yeah, that's exactly what was my experience.

McMaster is critical of Afghan peace talks that began this month. Mr. Trump, in his view, is making too many concessions.

Scott Pelley: You say in the book that the president cheapened the sacrifice of the 2,300 Americans who have died in Afghanistan so far.

H.R. McMaster: Well, I think what he did with this new policy, is he, in effect, is partnering with the Taliban against, in many ways, the Afghan government. And so, I think that it's an unwise policy. And I think what we require in Afghanistan is a sustained commitment to help the Afghan government and help the Afghan security forces continue to bear the brunt of this fight.

Which is critical, in McMaster's view, to prevent another 9/11.

H.R. McMaster: Terrorist organizations who pose a threat to us are stronger now than they were on September 10, 2001. Those who perpetrated the mass murder attacks of 9/11 were the mujahideen-era alumni of the resistance to Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Today, we are facing an Al-Qaeda and an ISIS alumni that is orders of magnitude greater than that mujahideen-era alumni ever was. And they also have access to much more destructive capabilities.

Scott Pelley: The president says that he is drawing down our troops in Afghanistan to about 5,000. And withdrawing 12,000 from Germany.

H.R. McMaster: I think these are both big mistakes. I think they're mistakes because they're consistent with, I think, this sentiment that you see really across both political parties for retrenchment or withdrawal from complex problem sets overseas.

Scott Pelley: People are tired of these wars.

H.R. McMaster: Yeah, they're tired of the wars and we lack confidence. We lack confidence because we haven't had, I think, sound strategies and policies in place and Americans are losing faith in these efforts. I don't blame them.

President Trump with McMaster NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

As for the president, McMaster told us foreign policy was not his favorite subject. McMaster would brief to the limits of Mr. Trump's attention, then watch him shoot from the hip.

Scott Pelley: The president was speaking to reporters on Air Force One in late 2017. The president was asked about the Russian cyber assault on the 2016 election. Mr. Trump said of Russian President Putin, quote, "Every time he sees me, he says, 'I didn't do that,' and I really believe that when he tells me that. He means it." What was your reaction after the president said that?

H.R. McMaster: Well, my reaction was one of surprise, disappointment, disbelief.

Scott Pelley: Later the same day, the president went before cameras and said he didn't mean it. 

President Trump: I'm surprised that there's any conflict on this. What I said there is that I believe he believes that…

Scott Pelley: Did you have a hand in the president's retraction?

H.R. McMaster: I did, and others. We had a conversation with the president afterwards we said, "your answer to that question will be misconstrued as a complete denial of Russian meddling when we know it's incontrovertible. It's just, it's just a fact."

McMaster also sticks to facts on climate change. He foresees a world destabilized by fire, flood, thirst and hunger.

H.R. McMaster: What is so sad these days is that we are so engaged in partisan infighting against each other that we don't take the time just to inventory what we can agree on. Can we agree that climate change is bad? Yes. Can we agree that it's man-made? Yes. Can we agree that we can do something about it? Certainly, we can.

Scott Pelley: The president says climate change is a hoax.

H.R. McMaster: Well, it's not a hoax. It's not a hoax.

As for the pandemic, McMaster told us there was a national security pandemic plan but its first two components failed. 

H.R. McMaster: The first of those was, identify an epidemic at its source and contain it locally. Well, thanks to the Chinese Communist Party, its obfuscation, its repression of the news of the virus we couldn't do that. The second part of that is mobilize a biomedical response. And I think what we see now is there are frailties in that response, supply chains that prioritized just-in-time delivery and efficiency instead of the stockpiles we needed. Supply chains that were over-reliant on China from a PPE perspective, the personal protective equipment, as well as pharmaceuticals.

U.S. National Security Adviser McMaster talks at the Munich Security Conference in Munich
H.R. McMaster talks at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 17, 2018. RALPH ORLOWSKI/REUTERS

While managing threats to the nation, McMaster could not master the threats to his job. He lasted 13 months -- his armor, pierced, in part, by a social media missile: #FireMcMaster.

Scott Pelley: Who was behind #FireMcMaster?

H.R. McMaster: Well, it was-- it was a combination of-- of, I think, these sorts of people who saw me as an impediment to their agenda. And it was a campaign that started domestically, but then was reinforced by an adversary, reinforced by the Kremlin.

Scott Pelley: The Russians were behind #FireMcMaster?

H.R. McMaster: They were full participants in it, but I don't think they started it. But-- but many people who operate, you know, in this sort of venomous, you know, social media environment and bloggers and the pseudo-media. They're the ones who initiated the campaign.

A campaign joined ultimately by some in the White House who offered the three-star general an incentive to leave the battlefield.

Scott Pelley: There were people who wanted you to resign from the NSC and dangled a fourth star in front of you to get you to do it?

H.R. McMaster: Yes. Yeah. 

Scott Pelley: And you told them?

H.R. McMaster: No, thank you, I'm honored, but I intend to retire at the-- at the end of my, you know, tour of duty, whatever the end of that tour of duty is in the White House.

His tour ended with a tweet, the president thanking McMaster for his service. Today, at age 58, the retired general who did not have stars in his eyes, is teaching at Stanford. His book is long on policy, short on intrigue. McMaster declined to exploit the fractures of the nation because our divisions, he advises, are the gravest threat to national security.

H.R. McMaster: We're in an environment where as we're at each other's throats, the world hasn't stopped. These challenges are to our security and our prosperity and our influence in the world, they're growing, I think, more severe while we're preoccupied with our own vitriolic partisan discourse.

Produced by Maria Gavrilovic. Associate producer, Alex Ortiz. Broadcast associate, Ian Flickinger. Edited by Robert Zimet.

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