For McMaster, Pomp Under Bittersweet Circumstances

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster had a stilted relationship with President Trump even before Mr. Trump decided to replace him with John R. Bolton.

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, handed off his duties to John R. Bolton on Friday, a bittersweet departure from the White House in which he played down personal animosities with Mr. Trump but left little doubt that he and the president had differences on issues like Syria and Russia.

General McMaster met with Mr. Bolton, who then walked the halls of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, introducing himself to staff members still reeling from Mr. Trump’s second major shake-up of the National Security Council in 13 months. Mr. Bolton, a hawkish former envoy to the United Nations, takes up the job on Monday.

Mr. Trump treated General McMaster better than other ousted officials in his administration. The president met the general and his family in the Oval Office to say goodbye. Dozens of staff members, including Vice President Mike Pence, lined the parking lot next to the West Wing to clap as he walked to his car.

At a farewell reception Thursday evening in the Indian Treaty Room, General McMaster urged roughly 150 career staff members to keep working on policies that were codified in the National Security Strategy that he had rolled out in December.

In two speeches during his final weeks, General McMaster, a 55-year-old veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who first made his name with a book about how the Pentagon and Lyndon B. Johnson mishandled the Vietnam War, reinforced how differently he and the president thought about the world.

He delivered a scathing denunciation of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whom Mr. Trump has stubbornly refused to criticize. The general also emphasized the need for sustained American military engagement in Syria, where Mr. Trump has ordered a rapid drawdown.

General McMaster’s criticism of Russia drew the most attention, especially his assertion that “we have failed to impose sufficient costs” on Russia for its subversion of American democracy. But it was his reference to autocratic leaders that arguably drew the most blood, given Mr. Trump’s assiduous cultivation of Mr. Putin and President Xi Jinping of China.

“Even in the United States and other free nations, some journalists, academics, public officials and saddest of all, young people, have developed and promulgated idealized, warped views of tyrannical regimes,” General McMaster said this week at the Atlantic Council.

Three weeks earlier, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he delivered an impassioned case against President Bashar al-Assad, as well as Russia and Iran, which he said were complicit in the Syrian government’s murderous campaign against its own people.

While General McMaster said the United States had liberated nearly all the territory held by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, he said the American military would continue to carry out operations in Syria “until ISIS is completely defeated, population centers are stabilized and refugees can safely return home.”

That prospect seemed in doubt last week after Mr. Trump declared, “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.” At a meeting of the National Security Council on Tuesday, which General McMaster did not attend, Mr. Trump pressed his military advisers to wrap up the campaign immediately.

The advisers, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., demurred, according to a person in the room. Instead, they sold the president on an alternative plan, in which troops would stay in Syria for months — though not years — to stabilize territories liberated from the Islamic State and to train local forces.

General McMaster, people who know him said, favored a deeper commitment to Syria than even Mr. Mattis or General Dunford. His colleagues said he skipped the N.S.C. meeting to attend a military awards ceremony. But his presence would likely not have helped. By that time, Mr. Trump was long past listening to his national security adviser.

The two men had a stilted relationship, even before the president decided to replace him with Mr. Bolton. They got off on the wrong foot during the debate over Afghanistan, these officials said, because General McMaster was so fervent about sending additional troops.

Mr. Trump acquiesced, but unhappily — a frustration that may have colored his views on Syria, they said. The president also bridled at General McMaster’s military-style briefings, viewing him as pedantic and condescending.

If the president’s treatment stung General McMaster, however, he did not show it. Unlike Rex W. Tillerson, who lamented the inability of people to treat one another with respect after Mr. Trump fired him as secretary of state on Twitter, General McMaster has not taken swipes at the president, either publicly or in remarks to staff members.

He credited Mr. Trump with speaking out against oppression on visits to Poland, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. And he said Mr. Trump had properly expelled 60 Russian diplomats in the United States in retaliation for Russia’s role in a nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter living in Britain.

“I am immensely proud of the vital role that the National Security Council played in restoring America’s strategic confidence,” he said in a statement released by the White House.

General McMaster’s tenure had its low points, including his awkward defense of Mr. Trump after an Oval Office meeting in which the president disclosed highly classified information from Israel, about an Islamic State plot in Syria, to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador.

Some of the general’s friends also winced when he defended Mr. Trump’s worldview in two opinion articles he wrote with Gary D. Cohn, Mr. Trump’s former chief economic adviser. They viewed it as inappropriately political for an active-duty military officer. General McMaster will retire from the military this summer; friends expect him to pursue a job in academia.

But inside the N.S.C., General McMaster’s missteps mattered less than his management style. Officials said he brought stability to a department that had flailed in the aftermath of his predecessor, Michael T. Flynn, a former three-star general who was fired after 24 days in the job for lying to Mr. Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador at the time, Sergey I. Kislyak.

“McMaster leaves, broadly speaking, with his dignity intact, which is more than can be said for most of Trump’s appointees,” said John A. Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who knows him well.

Richard H. Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who advised General McMaster on his doctoral thesis, said his departure was probably inevitable given the president he was serving.

“McMaster was not going to pull his punches or dumb down his material in the belief that Trump could only sit still for that,” Mr. Kohn said. “In his view, that would be an improper way to serve the president of the United States.”

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