White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the possibility that North Korea could possess nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States would be “intolerable” and could lead to a US military response.
In an interview on MSNBC that was taped Wednesday but aired Saturday, McMaster said of Pyongyang, “If they had nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States, it’s intolerable from the President’s perspective. Of course, we have to provide all options to do that, and that includes a military option.”
When asked by host Hugh Hewitt how concerned the American people should be about the possibility of a war with North Korea to end its nuclear threat, McMaster said Pyongyang poses an extreme danger.
“It’s impossible to overstate the danger associated with this,” he said. “I think it’s impossible to overstate the danger associated with a rogue, brutal regime, I mean, who murdered his own brother with nerve agent in an airport. I mean, think about what he’s done, in terms of his own brutal repression of not only members of his regime but his own family.”
He added that he expects US allies to recognize North Korea is a global threat that “requires global action,” including the expulsion of North Korean guest workers and more vigorous economic sanctions.
US leadership in Afghanistan
On the topic of US military leadership in Afghanistan, McMaster said he, Defense Secretary James Mattis and President Donald Trump continue to have confidence in Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of US forces and the NATO-led training mission there.
“I’ve known him for many years. I can’t imagine a more capable commander in any, on any mission,” McMaster said.
CNN has spoken to more than half a dozen currently serving military and civilian defense officials who say the fate of Nicholson as the commander of some 13,000 US and international forces in Afghanistan is being discussed in administration circles.
The thrust of White House criticism of Nicholson appears be that he has been unable to win the war in Afghanistan. While Nicholson, a four-star Army general with 35 years of military experience, is respected, he has also caused some irritation in senior defense circles. His public comments seeking more troops have been seen by some as getting ahead of a White House decision.
Nicholson also made a very public pledge to defeat and eliminate the local Afghan branch of ISIS known as ISIS-K, promising to do so by the end of 2017. To that end he authorized the use of the MOAB bomb, the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the US arsenal, a decision that made headlines while inviting some to wonder whether Nicholson considered the political impact such a decision might have. He also caused consternation inside the Pentagon by unilaterally changing policy on how the public is notified of troops killed in action in Afghanistan.
On the topic of sanctions against Russia, McMaster said that country “must play a much more responsible role in the world – if it’s going to be a full-fledged, welcomed member of the international community.”
“(W)hat the President has asked us to do is, and – and the secretary of state is doing – is to counter Russia’s destabilizing behavior where it affects our interests, to take actions to deter any – any– escalation of conflicts or anything that could lead to a confrontation,” McMaster said.
When asked by host Hewitt whether Trump has “a clear-eyed understanding of the nature of his counterpart in Russia and the nature of the regime,” McMaster said: “Well, I mean, I think everybody’s pretty clear on that, right? The nature of the Russian regime is one person, isn’t it? I mean, so, I think you have an autocratic regime and an individual who’s (done) an extraordinarily effective job at consolidating power. And you have, I think, someone who is active in a way that … is not in the interest of the Russian people.”
He added that Russia is undertaking a “sophisticated campaign of subversion and disinformation and propaganda,” including its role tampering in the US election.
But, he said, Russia’s destabilizing activities in the United States and Europe and alliances with Syria and Iran do not mean Washington should stop trying to have a relationship with Moscow.
“Obviously for this range of destabilizing behaviors there have to be consequences, but does that prevent us from cooperating with them, to maybe begin to resolve the Syrian civil war and end part, at least a portion, of that human suffering?” McMaster asked.
He added, “Or where else do our interests align? Certainly, they should align on North Korea.”
McMaster, an Army lieutenant general, has faced backlash from various right-wing media outlets over the past week for personnel moves at the White House.
Earlier this week, Ezra Cohen-Watnick was removed as the senior director of intelligence on the National Security Council, which some saw as part of an effort to rid the council of former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s acolytes.
“Gen. McMaster is confident that Ezra will make many further significant contributions to national security in another position in the administration,” a White House official said following the news of Cohen-Watnick’s departure.
Additionally, retired Army Col. Derek Harvey was also removed from his post on the security council last week.
The White House has seen significant reshuffling in the past few weeks, including the addition of Trump’s newly appointed chief of staff, retired four-star Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, who was brought in with a mandate to instill order in Trump’s pack of restive aides.
Some conservatives also have raised objections to McMaster’s decision earlier this year to extend a security clearance for Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s final national security adviser, who has been accused by some conservatives of mishandling classified information involving Trump campaign associates.
A senior administration official said Thursday that McMaster has written letters to all past national security advisers – including Rice – extending their security clearances. The official characterized the letters as a pro-forma move that allows the former advisers to participate in administration discussions about national security matters that originated under their tenure.
The President, however, issued a statement of support for McMaster on Friday.
“General McMaster and I are working very well together,” Trump said in a statement released by the White House. “He is a good man and very pro-Israel. I am grateful for the work he continues to do serving our country.”
CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Sophie Tatum contributed to this report