By Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt
February 24, 2017
President Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser has told his staff that Muslims who commit terrorist acts are perverting their religion, rejecting a key ideological view of other senior Trump advisers and signaling a potentially more moderate approach to the Islamic world.
The adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, told the staff of the National Security Council on Thursday, in his first “all hands” staff meeting, that the label “radical Islamic terrorism” was not helpful because terrorists are “un-Islamic,” according to people who were in the meeting.
That is a repudiation of the language regularly used by both the president and General McMaster’s predecessor, Michael T. Flynn, who resigned last week after admitting that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about a phone call with a Russian diplomat.
It is also a sign that General McMaster, a veteran of the Iraq war known for his sense of history and independent streak, might move the council away from the ideologically charged views of Mr. Flynn, who was also a three-star Army general before retiring.
Wearing his Army uniform, General McMaster spoke to a group that has been rattled and deeply demoralized after weeks of upheaval, following a haphazard transition from the Obama administration and amid the questions about links to Russia, which swiftly engulfed Mr. Flynn.
General McMaster, several officials said, has been vocal about his views on dealing with Islamic militancy, including with Mr. Trump, who on Monday described him as “a man of tremendous talent, tremendous experience.” General McMaster got the job after Mr. Trump’s first choice, Robert S. Harward, a retired Navy vice admiral, turned it down.
Within a day of his appointment on Monday, General McMaster was popping into offices to introduce himself to the council’s professional staff members. The staff members, many of them holdovers from the Obama administration, felt viewed with suspicion by Mr. Trump’s team and shut out of the policy-making process, according to current and former officials.
In his language, General McMaster is closer to the positions of former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Both took pains to separate acts of terrorism from Islamic teaching, in part because they argued that the United States needed the help of Muslim allies to hunt down terrorists.
“This is very much a repudiation of his new boss’s lexicon and worldview,” said William McCants, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “The ISIS Apocalypse.”
“McMaster, like Obama, is someone who was in positions of leadership and thought the United States should not play into the jihadist propaganda that this is a religious war,” Mr. McCants said.
“There is a deep hunger for McMaster’s view in the interagency,” he added, referring to the process by which the State Department, Pentagon and other agencies funnel recommendations through the National Security Council. “The fact that he has made himself the champion of this view makes people realize they have an advocate to express dissenting opinions.”
But Mr. McCants and others cautioned that General McMaster’s views would not necessarily be the final word in a White House where Mr. Trump and several of his top advisers view Islam in deeply xenophobic terms. Some aides, including the president’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, have warned of a looming existential clash between Islam and the Judeo-Christian world.
Mr. Bannon and Stephen Miller, another senior adviser with anti-Islamic views, have close ties to Mr. Trump and walk-in privileges in the Oval Office. General McMaster, 54, has neither.
Known for challenging his superiors, General McMaster was nearly passed over for the rank of brigadier general in 2007, until Gen. David H. Petraeus, who used his counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, and Robert M. Gates, then the defense secretary, rallied support for him.
The schisms within the administration could be aired publicly if the Senate Armed Services Committee exercises a right to hold a confirmation hearing for General McMaster. Although the post of national security adviser does not require Senate confirmation, senators must approve his retention of his three-star rank in a new position.
Senator John McCain, the committee’s chairman and a strong supporter of General McMaster, has not said whether he wants to hold a hearing.
To outside observers, the administration’s approach to the world appears increasingly schizophrenic. Mr. Pence, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior cabinet officers have reaffirmed American support for alliances with NATO and in East Asia. Mr. Bannon and other White House officials continue to suggest there will be radical shifts in American policy. These mixed messages extend beyond the Muslim world. This week, Mr. Pence traveled to Brussels to declare — on Mr. Trump’s behalf, he said — “the strong commitment of the United States to the continued cooperation and partnership with the European Union.”
But on Thursday, the German ambassador to the United States, Peter Wittig, said his government remains concerned that the White House views the European Union as an ailing, inefficient economic club, rather than a political project that has kept Europe at peace.
Before Mr. Pence’s trip, according to Reuters, Mr. Wittig met Mr. Bannon, who told him the White House viewed the European Union as a “flawed construct” and preferred to negotiate with Germany and other European countries one-on-one. Mr. Wittig declined to discuss the meeting, while Mr. Bannon did not respond to a request for comment.
But Mr. Wittig said to reporters, “We will certainly fight for a coherent and resilient European Union.”