Retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward has turned down an offer from President Donald Trump to be national security adviser — saying he couldn’t give the commitment necessary for the job — raising new questions whether a White House in turmoil can find a permanent replacement for Michael Flynn.
Harward, a former deputy to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, was seen by many as a steadying hand after Flynn’s tumultuous tenure atop the National Security Council. Flynn was ousted after he failed to tell Vice President Mike Pence about his discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office. Flynn also set off a revolt among NSC staff over some of the changes he was implementing.
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In a statement reported by CNN on Thursday evening, after news broke that he was passing on the job, Harward said that “since retiring, I have the opportunity to address financial and family issues that would have been challenging in this position.”
“Like all service members understand, and live, this job requires 24 hours a day, 7 days a week focus and commitment to do it right,” Harward’s statement continued. “I currently could not make that commitment. My thoughts and prayers are with those that carry such heavy burdens and responsibility for taking care of our country’s national security concerns. God bless this great country of ours.”
But according to an individual familiar with Harward’s thinking, the former Navy SEAL who served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush turned down the Trump offer because he did not receive sufficient assurances about staffing and autonomy. Specifically, the source said Harward wanted commitments that the National Security Council would be fully in charge of security matters, not Trump’s political advisers. And he wanted to be able to select his own staff.
Trump’s decision last month to place his top strategist and former Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon on the National Security Council was roundly criticized as a departure from tradition, and previous administrations have tried to keep the NSC as divorced from politics as possible.
The individual familiar with Harward’s thinking, who asked that he not be identified, cited the “unwillingness of White House political team to be deferential to the White House national security team” and “unwillingness of [the] White House political team to be malleable” as driving factors in why Harward demurred.
A Trump administration official said Harward’s decision to decline the offer had more to do with family commitments and his obligations to his current employer, Lockheed Martin. “He came back today and said he could not overcome either,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Mary Beth Long, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Bush administration, was soliciting resumes from people willing to work on the NSC if he took the post, according to a former Bush administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The first source also said that the broader appearance of a White House struggling mightily to get organized factored heavily on Harward’s thinking — what the source described as “lack of command and control,” a “lack of discipline,” and “an unwillingness of White House political team to be malleable.”
POLITICO reported Wednesday that Trump offered Harward the job on Monday and he asked for time to mull it over.
The news of Harward’s decision not to accept the job was first reported by the Financial Times.
The White House has maintained that Trump has a roster of other potential candidates to fill the crucial post, which is responsible for a staff of hundreds that coordinate national security policymaking with the Pentagon, State Department, and other agencies and directly advise the president.
The acting national security adviser is retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who was serving as Flynn’s chief of staff and the NSC’s executive secretary.
“The president is currently evaluating a group of very strong candidates that will be considered to fill the national security adviser position permanently and is confident in the ability of General Kellogg, a decorated and distinguished veteran of the United States Army, until that person is ultimately chosen,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Tuesday.
Harward was a deputy commander under then Gen. Mattis at U.S. Central Command, responsible for military operations in the Middle east. He previously served as the National Security Council’s director of strategy and defense before he was assigned to the National Counterterrorism Center in 2005.
Inside the National Security Council, even senior aides said confusion reigned. “I don’t know anything. Nobody knows anything. I don’t know who knows anything,” said a senior NSC aide who added that many colleagues are beginning to fear they will be dismissed by the incoming national security adviser, whoever that may be.
Eli Stokols, Tara Palmeri, Eliana Johnson, Michael Crowley and Daniel Lippman contributed to this story.