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HR McMaster announced as national security adviser

The guy has been in the White House barely four weeks, and the talk within the global opposition has passed from how he might be prevented from getting there to how he might legitimately be evicted. Article 4 of the 25th Amendment is enjoying a moment in the sun, providing as it does for the replacement of a president who is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”. Enter (briefcase in hand) the sane, sensible, foreigner-friendly President Pence. We are all experts in the US constitution now.

Except that there is no sign whatever that Donald Trump is going anywhere – other than to Mar-a-Lago of a weekend. The wishful parallels with opposition to Brexit here in the UK – a second referendum, a Lords rebellion, a popular uprising – betray the same reluctance on the part of the losers to face facts. The new president’s style may be unorthodox, and the substance may as yet be hard to detect, but any evidence of actual incapacity is hard to find – indeed, the frenetic activity suggests the very opposite.

Where the world has to be grateful is that the constraints on executive power provided for in the constitution are demonstrably working. Not only that, at least some of Trump’s appointees appear already to be exerting a sobering influence on his wilder instincts. Mercifully, he appears not to be recruiting top officials in his own image. He may even be learning.

His new national security adviser is the latest, but not only, case in point. In the 24 hours after his appointment, no one came forward with any criticism whatsoever. Trump’s description of the army lieutenant-general HR McMaster as “highly respected by everyone in the military” went uncontested. The most disparaging comment to be heard was that, as a serving officer, McMaster had had no choice but to accept the president’s offer – unlike Trump’s previous choice, the retired vice-admiral Robert Harward, who chose to walk away.

That distinction is as maybe. But several features of the process stand out. The first is the methodical approach. For all his senior positions Trump has compiled a shortlist, conducted interviews and made his decision.

For most of the posts, the shortlist has been made public. For national security adviser there was Harward, who turned it down. There was John Bolton (the name alone of George W Bush’s attack-dog ambassador to the UN would alarm much of the world); there was lieutenant-general Robert Caslen; and there was McMaster, who prevailed.

Of some significance too may be a name that was not on this shortlist. General David Petraeus, hero of the Iraq “surge”, was apparently considered for secretary of state, and his name was again in the frame this time around. The darling of many liberal Americans and Europeans, Petraeus appeared once again to have powerful people lobbying for him – but to no avail.

Outside his own coterie, Petraeus is discredited. His advice to President Obama on Afghanistan was questionable – Obama himself regretted taking it – and his passing of classified information to his biographer/lover not only brought him a criminal conviction but cast serious doubt on his judgment. Trump was right to resist the siren voices calling for Petraeus’s return to public life.

There are other aspects of Trump’s people-picking that might be noted too. It is not just the choice of McMaster that met broad approval. There was widespread regret, among those who move in these circles, that Harward had turned the job down. Similar assent from informed people has followed the announcement of his appointees.

Leave aside for a moment the controversies attending to the Breitbart group and members of the Trump family – not insignificant but not the whole story. Consider instead the selection of Mike Pence as a running mate exemplifying almost everything Trump himself was not. Consider ex-marine general Jim Mattis at defence, largely welcomed as an experienced and safe pair of hands; and the oil executive Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, whose main black mark appeared to be having once supped with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Where Senate confirmation was required, they all stood the test rather better than anticipated. Pence, Mattis and Tillerson spent the past week or so meeting allies around the world, leaving astonished relief and reassurance in their wake.

With all these appointments, Trump has done that rare thing among chief executives by not selecting candidates who are just like him. In choosing Mike Flynn, a known maverick, he maybe went further than advisable(though his downfall might also have included an element of payback from the intelligence services). And in his penchant for military men – albeit military men with a critical and philosophical bent – lies clues about what he is looking for: plain-spokenness, a proven ability to get things done, organisational discipline tempered with brutal honesty, and respect from peers.

The number of ex-officers being brought into the administration initially prompted quips about a Trump junta in the making. The stream of decrees emanating from the Oval Office hardly contradicted that impression. As the pace of new executive orders slows, however, and the constitutional checks and balances start to make themselves felt, a more positive response might be that this officer corps – by virtue of its very differences from the president – could ultimately turn out to be Donald Trump’s best protection from himself.

This article was sourced from