Senate panel approves Lt. Gen. McMaster's transfer to White House as national security adviser

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Lt. Gen. Herbert Raymond "H. R." McMaster, U.S. Army, is the assistant to the president for national security affairs, also known as the national security adviser. (U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster's shift to the White House to be President Donald Trump's national security adviser.

The 23-2 vote came after McMaster met with committee members for nearly two hours behind closed doors to discuss his move from a military assignment to one of the most influential jobs in all of U.S. government. Two members of the committee abstained from voting.

"The vote was very overwhelming in favor of approving his status as a three-star general to remain on active-duty," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the panel's chairman, told reporters following the session.

McMaster's appearance before the committee was unusual because national security advisers aren't subject to Senate confirmation and typically don't testify on Capitol Hill. But McMaster's situation is different. He elected to remain in uniform rather than retire from military service, and generals of his grade need the chamber's approval when they're promoted or get new assignments.

McCain said he's confident the full Senate will follow suit and re-appoint McMaster as a lieutenant general while serving as Trump's national security adviser.

Questions were raised during the meeting about the role Trump chief strategist, Steve Bannon, plays on the National Security Council, according to McCain, who said he considers it inappropriate for the president's "political adviser" to have a voice in the NSC.

"It should not be," McCain said.

Trump selected McMaster last month after he fired the general's predecessor, Michael Flynn, for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about whether he and Moscow's top diplomat in Washington had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia in a telephone call.

As national security adviser, McMaster oversees the NSC staff and was promised total control by Trump. But that pledge could lead to tension with Bannon, who operates a shadowy "strategic initiatives group" that runs parallel to the NSC.

Bannon also has a seat on the NSC's principals committee in a restructuring approved by Trump that puts him on equal footing with Trump Cabinet members such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Committee member Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., voted against McMaster's reappointment as an active-duty lieutenant general. She cited media reports that McMaster, while in a military assignment, allowed two service members accused of sexual assault to advance in their careers while the case was still open. She said the decision violated Army regulations.

"It also sends a chilling message to survivors who are already afraid to report about who is more valued," Gillibrand said in a statement. "General McMaster was more concerned about hampering these men's careers than following the rules in pursuit of justice."

McMaster declined to be interviewed by The Washington Post, which first reported on the case. But in a statement to the newspaper, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the general, calling him a "leader in sexual assault prevention in each of his commands."

McMaster is the first active-duty officer to serve as national security adviser since Colin Powell, then a three-star Army general, assumed the job during President Ronald Reagan's final two years in office.

The Armed Services Committee did not insist that Powell appear before the panel, but members openly discussed the pros and cons of naming an active-duty officer to serve in the job, according to the record of a Dec. 15, 1987 meeting.

Former Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who chaired the committee at the time, backed Powell but cautioned that installing a general or admiral in the post could lead to an "inherent conflict." The officer reports directly to the president, Nunn said, but is dependent upon one single, powerful federal agency — the Defense Department — for his pay and professional future.

But McCain, then a member of the Armed Services Committee, noted that the Constitution allows the president to appoint "whomsoever he wishes from whatever walk of life."