On the evening the world found out U.S. President Donald Trump was going to oust him as National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster attended a reception at the Canadian embassy in Washington.
One person who crossed paths with him at that event last Thursday described a sanguine demeanour. The three-star general said he planned to soldier on until he felt he could no longer make an impact at the White House, and then he would go, recounted the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Within a couple of hours of that conversation, the Washington Post had revealed that Mr. Trump’s mind was already made up: Mr. McMaster would soon be out. A week later, the President made it official, tweeting that the National Security Adviser would leave April 9, to be replaced by hawkish ex-diplomat John Bolton.
That Mr. McMaster spent one of the last nights of his White House tenure socializing with Canadians was fitting.
The National Security Adviser was a key ally for the Trudeau government in Mr. Trump’s administration. He argued strenuously for Canada to be exempted from the President’s tariffs on steel and aluminium, and was in favour of preserving the continental free market in North American free-trade agreement renegotiations, said Canadian officials who dealt with him over the past year.
His ouster coincided with the administration’s announcement, in an executive order this week, that the tariff exemption for Canada will only be temporary: It will expire on May 1, turning up the pressure on Ottawa to meet Mr. Trump’s demand for a renegotiated NAFTA by then, or negotiate another exemption.
Mr. McMaster was also a moderating influence on Mr. Trump more generally, pushing for the country to stay in the Iran nuclear deal that the President has repeatedly threatened to tear up.
Mr. Bolton, by contrast, has advocated bombing Iran and North Korea. A lawyer and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, Mr. Bolton is best known for his tenure at the State department and as U.S. ambassador to the UN during the George W. Bush administration. He was involved in the U.S.’s decision to pull out of the International Criminal Court, as well as building the case for invading Iraq.
More recently, Mr. Bolton argued in a 2015 Washington Post op-ed that the U.S. should attack and destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Earlier this year, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. should carry out a pre-emptive strike on North Korea – a move that could provoke a nuclear retaliation by Pyongyang.
Carla Robbins, a national security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former journalist who covered Mr. Bolton during the Bush years, said he is convinced that the U.S. should not be held back by any international order.
“Bolton is above all a lawyer who fiercely and utterly believes the United States should not be constrained by any international law, by any treaty, by any alliance,” she said. “So the affinity he and President Trump have, above all, is this notion of no constraint.”
Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star U.S. Army general, described Mr. Bolton as “intelligent” and a talented speaker and writer. But he said his inability to be a cool-headed decision maker makes him a poor choice for his new job.
“He will have a viewpoint, a forceful one, and it will … feed the President’s impulsive nature, and possibly get us into an armed conflict,” he said on MSNBC.
The national security shakeup is the latest in a series of moves pushing the Trump administration closer to the President’s America First agenda and away from the influence of the so-called “globalist” moderates. In the past month, Mr. Trump has fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, announced steel and aluminium levies, ordered tariffs on China and prompted the resignation of moderate economic adviser Gary Cohn.
Exactly what the rise of Mr. Bolton will mean for Canada is unclear. But Mr. McMaster’s absence will certainly be felt. Along with Mr. Cohn, Defence Secretary James Mattis and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, he was seen by Ottawa as someone who would make Canada’s case in the White House.
Canadian officials were regularly in touch with Mr. McMaster, through both formal and informal channels.
The National Security Adviser and his wife dined at the official residence of Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., David MacNaughton, on one occasion before Christmas, said one source.
And on March 7, the day before Mr. Trump rolled out his steel tariffs, Mr. McMaster and his national security team met at the White House with Mr. MacNaughton, Daniel Jean and John Hannaford, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national-security and foreign-policy advisers, followed by dinner at the nearby Willard Hotel.
Whether Mr. McMaster’s advocacy tipped the scales in Ottawa’s favour on the matter was unclear, said one official. But in a White House where personal relationships can frequently sway a mercurial President, having one less voice for Canada could be a drawback.