The McMaster Statement

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster pauses while speaking to members of the media outside the West Wing of the White House, Monday, May 15, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster pauses while speaking to members of the media outside the West Wing of the White House, Monday, May 15, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Here’s my take on General McMaster’s statement, delivered in person a few moments ago outside the White House.

First, here’s the text.

A brief statement for the record. There is nothing that the president takes more seriously than the security of the American people. The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The president of the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time, at no time, where intelligent sources or methods discussed. The president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of the state, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. Going on the record should outweigh the anonymous sources. I was in the room. It didn’t happen. Thanks, everybody.

This is a pretty declarative and all-encompassing statement. But that’s true only on the surface.

McMaster’s specific denials remain what I noted about his statement given originally to the Post. They deny things the Post story does not allege. As I read it, the Post says Trump revealed classified information from which sources and methods information can be inferred, not that he discussed them directly. It’s quite possible Trump may not even know that level of detail.

That part is a classic non-denial denial.

But McMaster adds at the top: “The story that came out tonight as reported is false.”

The “as reported” is a hedge. But more fundamentally saying “the story” is false can mean anything. He doubles down later. “I was in the room. It didn’t happen.” But again, what didn’t happen? The only reason I can think of to be totalizing in general and lawyerly and non-denailing in the specifics is that you’re trying to deny something that actually did happen.

Even though I think these statements are far more general than they may seem, it’s just as true that McMaster is putting his credibility on the line for Trump.

If the circumstances were different, this might give me some pause about the story. But the Post and the Times just have infinitely more credibility than the Trump White House at this point. What’s more, there are details about giving ‘heads up’ calls to the NSA and CIA. Assuming those calls were made, that certainly strongly suggests something serious went wrong.

As I noted earlier after Deputy National Security Advisor Powell made her statement, if McMaster felt he was able to deny the story, he would have done so in his original statement to the Post. But he didn’t. He has sort of done so now, but with his specific declarations still denying things which were never alleged.

The most reasonable take on this is that McMaster’s statement can’t really deny the details of the story. But the story is of sufficient gravity that he has felt the need to deceive the public, putting his own credibility on the line and destroying it in one moment.

If the story falls apart, perhaps he’ll be vindicated. But it looks like he just sacrificed his credibility on the altar of Trump.

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