“It’s so hard to find good help these days.” That’s the line that every clueless rich woman in a movie or television show says when she’s exasperated by her much too forward maid, or every clueless rich man says when he finds out his valet is far smarter than he is and has fixed everything, and made that clueless rich man look like a fool. “These people don’t know their place.” Everyone laughs. The audience knows just who is clueless. The “little people” know. There are no little people. Hire someone to help, to use their wits to fix things, and they will do just that. They’ll help, and they’ll take care of that persistent cluelessness. Sorry.
This trope has been around forever – every British butler is always smarter than his “master” – Jeeves knows a thing or two and saves his master’s ass again and again. Mary Poppins knows a thing or two and turns that banker into a halfway decent father after all. Maria, nobody in particular from nowhere, saves the von Trapp family from the Nazis. This has become a cliché. Good help isn’t hard to find. Good help is hard to tolerate. Wealth and pride and cluelessness preclude that – and everyone likes to laugh at rich people.
That’s comedy. In real life this is not funny at all, and Eli Lake, the Bloomberg reporter with deep sources within the White House, now reports this:
For the Washington establishment, President Donald Trump’s decision to make General H.R. McMaster his national security adviser in February was a masterstroke. Here is a well-respected defense intellectual, praised by both parties, lending a steady hand to a chaotic White House. The grown-ups are back.
But inside the White House, the McMaster pick has not gone over well with the one man who matters most. White House officials tell me Trump himself has clashed with McMaster in front of his staff.
On policy, the faction of the White House loyal to senior strategist Steve Bannon is convinced McMaster is trying to trick the president into the kind of nation building that Trump campaigned against. Meanwhile the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, is blocking McMaster on a key appointment.
McMaster’s allies and adversaries inside the White House tell me that Trump is disillusioned with him. This professional military officer has failed to read the president – by not giving him a chance to ask questions during briefings, at times even lecturing Trump.
The White House did issue a statement from Trump, saying that he couldn’t be happier with the guy and he’s doing a “terrific” job, but that’s not what Lake is being told in private. Hire someone to help, to use their wits to fix things, and they will do just that:
Trump was livid, according to three White House officials, after reading in the Wall Street Journal that McMaster had called his South Korean counterpart to assure him that the president’s threat to make that country pay for a new missile defense system was not official policy. These officials say Trump screamed at McMaster on a phone call, accusing him of undercutting efforts to get South Korea to pay its fair share.
This was not an isolated incident. Trump has complained in front of McMaster in intelligence briefings about “the general undermining my policy,” according to two White House officials. The president has given McMaster less face time. McMaster’s requests to brief the president before some press interviews have been declined. Over the weekend, McMaster did not accompany Trump to meet with Australia’s prime minister; the outgoing deputy national security adviser, K. T. McFarland, attended instead.
McFarland is that woman from Fox News who had been out of government for three decades. McMaster and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly tried to ease her out – she was a real pain in the ass and she knew nothing – but she was from Fox News. Trump likes her. Michael Flynn, who had McMaster’s job before him, the guy Trump had to fire after twenty-three days, loved her too – she shook things up. She’s still there, although the Trump folks may have found a place for her – ambassador to Singapore or something. McMaster isn’t backing down on this. He gets to choose his deputy national security adviser, damn it. They’re still working that out.
Donald Trump is also trying to work out how to tolerate the smart guy he hired, who may be smarter than he is:
Trump credits McMaster with coming up with the plan to strike a Syrian air base last month, which won bipartisan support in Washington.
At the same time, White House officials tell me that in recent weeks, Trump has privately expressed regret for choosing McMaster. Last Monday, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, who was a finalist for McMaster’s job, met with Trump to discuss a range of issues with the National Security Council. White House officials tell me the two discussed the prospect of Bolton coming in as McMaster’s deputy, but eventually agreed it was not a good fit.
Good help is hard to find:
The roots of the McMaster-Trump tensions begin in February, when the general was hired after his first meeting with the president. McMaster replaced another general, Michael Flynn. Both Vice President Mike Pence and Priebus supported getting rid of Flynn, after they alleged he misled his colleagues about conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Trump himself has defended Flynn publicly. The two shared a bond from the campaign trail, where they often discussed sports and movies during long evenings on the road. For a president who puts so much value in personal relationships and loyalty, Flynn’s departure was a blow.
That’s nice, but McMaster isn’t that kind of guy:
The first conflict between McMaster and Trump was about the major speech the president delivered at the end of February to a joint session of Congress. McMaster pleaded with the president not to use phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” He sent memos throughout the government complaining about a draft of that speech that included the phrase. But the phrase remained. When Trump delivered the speech, he echoed his campaign rhetoric by emphasizing each word: “Radical.” “Islamic.” “Terrorism.”
Then Trump’s inner circle began clashing with McMaster over personnel. This began with Ezra Cohen Watnick, who remains the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council. McMaster initially sided with the CIA and wanted to remove this Flynn appointee from his position, but eventually McMaster changed his mind under pressure from Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
That dispute was followed by a bigger one. Bannon and Trump, according to White House officials, pressed McMaster to fire a list of Obama holdovers at the National Security Council who were suspected of leaking to the press. The list of names was compiled by Derek Harvey, a former Defense Intelligence Agency colonel who was initially hired by Flynn. McMaster balked. He refused to fire anyone on the list and asserted that he had the authority to fire and hire National Security Council staff. He also argued that many of these appointees would be ending their rotation at the White House soon enough.
And finally, the White House chief of staff himself blocked McMaster this month from hiring Brigadier General Ricky Waddell as his deputy, complaining that McMaster failed to seek approval for that pick.
They hired him to help, but they’d rather he didn’t. Good help is hard to tolerate, and Lake adds this:
For now the White House is saying the president and his national security adviser are in sync. Trump said in his statement to me that he couldn’t be happier with the general. Of course, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway assured the public in February that Trump had full confidence in McMaster’s predecessor. Only a few hours later, he was forced to resign.
And that’s the story of bad help, and the story of the day:
Less than a week into the Trump administration, Sally Q. Yates, the acting attorney general, hurried to the White House with an urgent concern. The president’s national security adviser, she said, had lied to the vice president about his Russian contacts and was vulnerable to blackmail by Moscow.
“We wanted to tell the White House as quickly as possible,” Ms. Yates told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Monday. “To state the obvious: You don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.”
Yeah, but good help is hard to find:
President Trump did not immediately fire the adviser, Michael T. Flynn, over the apparent lie or the susceptibility to blackmail. Instead, Mr. Flynn remained in office for 18 more days. Only after the news of his false statements broke publicly did he lose his job on Feb. 13.
There was a lot of cluelessness going around:
Ms. Yates’s testimony, along with a separate revelation Monday that President Barack Obama had warned Mr. Trump not to hire Mr. Flynn, offered a more complete public account of Mr. Flynn’s stunning fall from one of the nation’s most important security posts.
It also raised fresh doubts about Mr. Trump’s judgment in keeping Mr. Flynn in place despite serious Justice Department concerns. White House officials have not fully explained why they waited so long.
“I don’t have any way of knowing what, if anything, they did,” Ms. Yates said. “If nothing was done, then certainly that would be concerning.”
They did have the goods on the guy:
At the heart of Monday’s testimony were Mr. Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak. Mr. Flynn denied that they had discussed American sanctions, an assertion echoed by Vice President Mike Pence and the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer. But senior FBI and Justice Department officials knew otherwise. Mr. Kislyak, like many foreign diplomats, was under routine surveillance, and his conversations with Mr. Flynn were recorded, officials have said. Investigators knew that Mr. Flynn had, in fact, discussed sanctions.
On Jan. 26, Ms. Yates said, she called the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, regarding “a very sensitive matter” that they could discuss only in person. Later that day, at the White House, she warned Mr. McGahn that White House officials were making statements “that we knew not to be the truth.” Ms. Yates said she explained to Mr. McGahn how she knew Mr. Flynn’s statements were untrue, though she did not go into details Monday, citing concerns about sensitive information.
“Why does it matter to DOJ if one White House official lies to another White House official?” Mr. McGahn asked at a second meeting the next day, according to Ms. Yates.
The White House counsel kind of missed the point:
It was not just a political concern, Ms. Yates replied. Intelligence services constantly look for leverage against foreign officials. If Mr. Flynn lied to his bosses, and Russian officials knew it, Moscow could use it as leverage against him. “This is a classic technique they would use going back to the Soviet era,” said James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, who testified alongside Ms. Yates.
Mr. McGahn also asked Ms. Yates for the underlying evidence, she said, and she told him how he could see it.
He may get around to that, but this guy was always trouble:
Even since leaving office, Mr. Flynn has been a persistent headache for Mr. Trump. He retroactively registered as a foreign lobbyist and failed to disclose Russian contacts, resurrecting questions about the administration’s close ties to Russia. The FBI is investigating whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Mr. Trump blamed Obama officials on Monday, noting on Twitter that it was his predecessor’s administration that gave Mr. Flynn a security clearance.
“General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama Administration – but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that,” Mr. Trump wrote.
The president doesn’t hand out security clearances like candy, of course – that wasn’t Obama’s doing – and there’s this:
Mr. Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, has long been a controversial figure. He has incorrectly declared that Sharia, or Islamic law, is spreading in the United States and once wrote on Twitter, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” His dubious assertions were so common that subordinates called them “Flynn facts.”
Mr. Obama fired Mr. Flynn from his defense intelligence job. And two days after the election, he warned Mr. Trump against making Mr. Flynn his national security adviser, two former Obama administration officials said on Monday. Mr. Obama said he had profound concerns about Mr. Flynn’s taking such a job.
Mr. Spicer sought to cast doubt on Mr. Obama’s warning, noting that the Obama administration had renewed Mr. Flynn’s security clearance in April 2016, well after his departure from the DIA.
“If President Obama was truly concerned about General Flynn, why didn’t they suspend his security clearance, which they approved just months earlier?” Mr. Spicer asked during his daily press briefing.
But Mr. Spicer’s comments also called into question the Trump transition team’s own assessment of Mr. Flynn. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who led the transition in the days after the election, wanted Mr. Flynn to be slotted as director of national intelligence, a cabinet-level job but one with narrower responsibilities. Mr. Christie had reservations about Mr. Flynn that he shared with Mr. Trump, according to three people close to the transition.
Trump just liked the guy, and that’s the problem:
Though Ms. Yates said she had expected the White House to act on her concerns, she spared the Trump administration outright criticism for not doing so. That is because she was fired on Jan. 30 after refusing to defend the president’s executive order banning refugees and travel from several predominantly Muslim countries. She said she was not sure what the White House had done after she left.
Ms. Yates said she stood by the decision that got her fired. She said she could not defend the president’s executive order, largely because Mr. Trump himself had indicated that it was intended to single out Muslims. Federal judges have since made similar findings.
She was right. Trump was wrong. Jeeves is always right, and Sally Yates had former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper by her side:
Trump has repeatedly called the investigations of possible coordination between his campaign aides and Russia “fake news” and, last week, said it may have been China that was behind the hacking.
That’s an assessment that’s looking increasingly detached from US intelligence officials.
“To me, the evidence was overwhelming, and very compelling, that the Russians did this,” Clapper testified, when asked about Trump’s most recent assertions.
Then, prompted by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, Clapper said Trump may still be helping the Russians by denying their involvement.
“You could rationalize that it helps the Russians by obfuscating who was actually responsible,” Clapper said.
That wasn’t a nice thing to imply, and there was this:
Throughout the Russia probes, the Trump White House has pointed to testimony earlier this year from Clapper that he had seen no evidence in the January intelligence report of collusion between the President’s campaign and Russia. That was before FBI Director James Comey publicly revealed that the FBI was, in fact, investigating that question.
Clapper said Comey’s March 20 testimony was the first he heard of the FBI investigation. He later said that his original assessment was that there was no evidence he had seen worth including in the intelligence assessment – but Yates later said that she could not answer the question because she did not want to reveal any classified information.
The implication from both officials’ testimonies was that there may, indeed, be evidence of collusion – after months of the White House arguing that Clapper was clear there is no evidence.
Clapper threw Trump under the bus, and there was this on that first executive order:
Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz went to town on Yates, arguing that she may have broken the law by refusing to defend the order. She rebutted him by pointing to a later court ruling that supported her argument that she had a greater duty to protect against discrimination and uphold the Constitution.
Democrats, meanwhile, pushed hard with lines of attack clearly aimed at damaging Trump himself, not necessarily digging into what happened in the 2016 elections.
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, one of the Senate’s most staunchly liberal members, took Yates on a winding line of questioning that ended with Trump possibly appearing on the witness stand in a hypothetical court trial against Flynn. At the end of the hypothetical exercise, Blumenthal pressed Yates if that was even remotely possible.
Yates responded: “Potentially.”
This was not a good day for Trump, and Michelle Goldberg saw this:
No Republican at the hearing challenged the assertion that Flynn was compromised. None suggested a defensible reason why Trump might have kept Flynn around for 18 days after Yates spoke to McGahn, firing him only after the Washington Post reported on his lies. The Republican senators simply and insistently changed the subject, over and over again. The hearing was officially about “Russian Interference in the 2016 Election,” but they acted as though the subject was actually leaks, or unmasking, or even – I swear – Hillary Clinton’s emails.
It was as if two different hearings were going on simultaneously. Democrats questioned the witnesses – Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper – about the subject at hand. Republicans tried to figure out who had leaked to the Washington Post, or why Yates had had the audacity, in her role as acting attorney general, to refuse to defend Trump’s travel ban.
It was also, with Ted Cruz, two different worlds:
Cruz asked Clapper a wholly irrelevant question that was clearly about Clinton, her campaign vice-chair Huma Abedin, and Abedin’s estranged spouse Anthony Weiner: “What would you do, at the DNI, if you discovered that an employee of yours had forwarded hundreds or even thousands of emails to a nongovernment individual, their spouse, on a nongovernment computer?” Cruz tried, and failed, to get Clapper to say that such a person would be prosecuted.
Under questioning by Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Clapper attempted to focus matters: “I understand how critical leaks are and unmasking and all these ancillary issues. But to me, the transcendent issue here is the Russian interference in our election process. And what that means to the erosion of the fundamental fabric of our democracy. And that to me is a huge deal.” But as this hearing once again made clear, it is not a huge deal to most Republicans in Congress.
Well, that’s life these days:
Unlike Republicans, Democrats are bad at imposing their version of reality on the country at large, even if that version happens to be true. Whatever else emerges from the Russia probe, we know that Trump, at a minimum, failed to properly vet Flynn and compromised national security by keeping him in a highly sensitive position, even after he was shown to be compromised. That alone should be a major scandal – and there is no doubt that it would be if a Democratic president had done something equivalent. Yet in this bizarre political environment, as norms and standards are vaporized all around us, Republicans refuse to admit that their grotesque orange emperor is naked, and because they have all the power, everyone acts like they could conceivably be right.
Wealth and pride and cluelessness are at play here, as in any good comedy. Michael Flynn is not Trump’s fault. He’s certainly not their fault. Good help is hard to find these days. Michael Flynn is Obama’s fault, or Hillary Clinton’s fault. Or the butler did it.
No, wait – the butler’s always right. McMaster is trying to help. Yates and Clapper are trying to help. That’s the problem. Good help is hard to tolerate.